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Poland's all-postal presidential vote 'dangerously undermines' democracy, warns HRW

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Poland's President Andrzej Duda, center, campaigning for his re-election in Warsaw, Poland. on February 19, 2020.
Poland's President Andrzej Duda, center, campaigning for his re-election in Warsaw, Poland. on February 19, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
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Poland's government should scrap its plan to hold an all-postal presidential ballot next month or risk undermining the country's democracy, Human Rights Watch has warned.

Campaigning for the presidential ballot was paused in early March due to the COVID-19 pandemic but the country's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has backed maintaining the May 10 election and introduced legislation to create a mail-in voting system.

The bill has been backed by Parliament's lower house and has moved on to the Senate.

The second alternative PiS had proposed was to extend the current presidential term from five to seven years but it was shot down as the party does not have the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution.

Human Right Watch condemned both alternatives on Tuesday and called on parliament to "ensure that the election process is predictable, free, and fair, which may require postponing the voting for a short period."

'There is no legal basis for the election'

According to Human Rights Watch, preparations are already underway for the all-postal election to take place despite the legislation not having been approved yet. For the NGO, "given the unprecedented nature of such full-scale mail-in voting in Poland, and the extremely short time frame, it appears very unlikely – if not impossible – that the process will guarantee fairness and transparency."

Piotr Buras from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank also told Euronews that with two weeks to go before the election, "there is no legal basis for the election to take place."

"The government decided to change the electoral law just a few weeks ago to introduce general postal voting. It, in itself, is unconstitutional — the basic law forbids any changes to the electoral law later than 6 months before the election," he wrote in an email.

The country's constitution already provides for circumstances in which the government could postpone elections during a public health emergency. Per the constitution, an election can only be held no earlier than 90 days after the end of a state of emergency for public health reasons.

The government has not declared a state of emergency. The country has, as of Tuesday, recorded 12,218 cases and 596 deaths from COVID-19, according to a tally kept by the Johns Hopkins University.

Furthermore, Buras stressed, Poland has no experience of this kind of voting.

"Universal postal ballot organised within a few weeks from scratch by an unprepared institution in the midst of a pandemic poses numerous challenges," he explained. Voter confidentiality and participation would be compromised, he said.

"Also, hundreds of thousands of Poles living abroad will not be given the possibility to vote," Buras added.

'Unfair advantage'

The NGO decried the fact that while opposition candidates have paused their campaigning, incumbent President Andrzej Duda, an independent allied with PiS, gets extensive coverage in government-friendly media. It said this "gives him an unfair advantage and raises concerns about all candidates’ ability to campaign freely and fairly."

Buras echoed that assessment.

According to a poll commissioned by the ECFR earlier this month, Duda should win the first round with 65% of votes, primarily because "the opposition's electorate does not intend to participate" over concerns about the ballot's legality and the risk to their health, Buras said.

"If there was a second round — in case Duda does not get more then 50% of votes in the first round which is a likely scenario if the opposition electorate is mobilised — the outcome of the election would be open," Buras went on.

For Lydia Gall, senior Balkan and Eastern European Union researcher at Human Rights Watch, "elections should be safe, free, and fair at all times, including during a deadly pandemic."

"Rather than present parliament with options that dangerously undermine the integrity of Poland’s democracy, the governing party should propose serious measures that can guarantee free elections during a health crisis," she added.

Can Senate block the mail-in system?

According to Buras, although the Senate could oppose the legislation to hold an all-postal election, the lower house would still be able to overturn the decision "by a simple majority".

However, PiS's majority in the lower house "is crumbling", Buras noted.

"Until recently, PiS's majority was undisputed and stable. At the moment — after Deputy Prime Minister Gowin (leader of smaller coalition party Porozumienie) left the government in protest against the May election — this majority is no longer certain," he explained.

Gowin's party has 18 MPs in the lower house and it is unclear how they would vote.

If parliament rejects the all-postal election, the government would still be obliged to hold the election on May 10, but "in the traditional way".

"However, nothing is prepared for that. It is hard to imagine that you could do that in three days. So many believe that PiS will de facto be forced to postpone the election by imposing a state of public health emergency which it has so far been opposed to," the ECFR expert said.

Poland vs the EU

Poland's right-wing government has repeatedly drawn the ire of the European Commission since 2015 for pushing through legislation that the EU says undermines judicial independence and rule of law.

The EU Court of Justice (ECJ) has also repeatedly ruled in the EU's favour in several court cases opposing the top EU institution to Poland.

In June 19, it ruled that Polish legislation lowering the retirement age of Supreme Cout judges was "contrary to EU law". Earlier this month, the ECJ also ordered Poland to "immediately suspend" the activities of the Supreme Court’s disciplinary chamber, whose members are elected by the Pis-held parliament.

Polish Political Analyst Marcin Zaborowski says it's still unclear whether or not the election will go ahead.

Watch the interview with Marcin Zaborowski in the video player above