Despite mounting concerns about public safety, Poland’s elections scheduled for May 10 are set to go ahead. The Polish government insists that postponing the presidential vote would be premature, despite most other European countries exercising more caution in lieu of the coronavirus pandemic.
“If there are conditions to go to a shop, then there are also conditions to go to a polling station,” said President Andrzej Duda, the incumbent and the clear favourite to win.
Yet many worry that such a vote would be neither free nor fair. More than 77 percent of Poles think it would be good for the presidential elections to be postponed for a year, according to pollster IBRiS.
As it stands, only one-fifth of Poles would vote in the May elections, according to recent polls. On Tuesday evening, the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party submitted legislation to Parliament to introduce universal postal voting.
The changes follow an amendment to extend postal voting to some categories of people, proposed during a late-night session on Friday. But amendments to the electoral code must be made at least six months before any elections, and the opposition has said the move violates electoral procedures and could invalidate the vote.
If the legislation passes, the 200,000 Polish voters living abroad – who worry that local restrictions and closed consular offices could exclude them from the vote – will be included in the postal scheme.
Anna, a 30-year-old Pole living in the United Kingdom, said that without the option of a postal vote, she would not be willing to risk infecting others at a polling station. “If the election goes ahead as planned, I will be effectively prevented from voting,” she said.
Meanwhile in France, Malgorzata Kanicka, a 27-year-old superyacht stewardess, worries that “this time there is no news about voting arrangements for us”.
“Our consulate in Nice is closed,” she told Al Jazeera. “Normally there are only a few places in the south of France where we can vote in elections, but given the lockdown in Nice, we are restricted in how far we can move from our house.”
Asked if she’ll be voting, Kanicka said she would like to, but noted that other members of her family may be unable to do so. “As a doctor, my dad probably won’t be able to go, as he is one of the essential personnel needed in hospitals,” she said.
Kanicka is critical of the decision to hold the vote. “We had regional elections in France not so long ago, and the number of COVID-19 cases doubled because of it,” she said. “I don’t want this to happen in Poland.”
Monika Sikora in Belgium shares her concerns. “Getting to polling stations on election day will be a challenge, especially for people travelling between cities. It is also difficult to predict how Belgian police will react to long queues outside polling stations.”
A fair fight?
The official campaign period, which runs from February to May and usually involves candidates travelling the country, has this year mostly overlapped with the lockdown.
All candidates have moved their campaigns online, attracting limited media attention. On Sunday, the main opposition candidate Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska called on the public to boycott the vote, and suspended her campaign.
In contrast, however, President Duda has been prominent on the front lines of the state emergency, with televised addresses to the nation and much-publicised hospital visits. A recent inspection at a factory producing hand sanitiser gathered criticism for looking like a campaign stunt.
“We have the classic problem of disjoining a campaigning candidate from a figure in public office. Andrzej Duda does not separate these two things,” said Skubiszewski.
“Public media are pursuing a very active propaganda campaign for Andrzej Duda”, with “the state administration also campaigning on his behalf”, he added.
Meanwhile, advocates of keeping the elections as scheduled argue any such advantage is overstated. “I would not say that the incumbent president is privileged by the suspension of campaigning,” said Bartlomiej Wroblewski, a Law and Justice (PiS) member of parliament.
President Duda “has been known to lead a very active campaign, and he is a generation younger than his main opponent,” Wroblewski told Al Jazeera.
Moreover, “the upcoming presidential elections are the fourth contest in the past year and a half,” he added. “In each election familiar arguments have been presented by all sides”.