WARSAW — Is it an election if no one votes?
That’s the Zen riddle that Poland will be grappling with over the weekend thanks to a presidential election scheduled for Sunday that isn’t being called off but also won’t happen.
Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and Poland’s de facto ruler, issued a statement late Wednesday saying that the May 10 vote will be annulled once the Supreme Court certifies that the election didn’t happen, and that the speaker of parliament will then set a new date for a postal-only vote.
It’s a relief to opposition candidates who feared being trounced by incumbent Andrzej Duda, and to the European Commission and international organizations, which had become increasingly alarmed at the headlong rush to hold a vote on Sunday despite the coronavirus pandemic.
But that doesn’t mean the electoral clock is stopped. Poland’s National Electoral Commission website is still counting down the hours until the vote begins.
It’s just that on Sunday morning, no polling stations will be open.
The bizarre situation is a defeat for Kaczyński, who had pushed so hard for the Sunday election that it split the country and threatened to break apart his right-wing ruling coalition. But that effort ran into so many logistical, political and legal hurdles that even the stubborn PiS leader had to give way when faced with the threat of losing his parliamentary majority.
The election was scheduled months ago, but then the coronavirus hit — turning the normal procedure of voting into a potential killer.
There is a legal way of delaying a vote: The government could declare a state of natural catastrophe, which automatically shifts elections until 90 days after such a state is lifted. However, Law and Justice refused to take that step — in large measure because Duda is far ahead in opinion polls.
Switching to an election months from now could provide an opening for the opposition. There’s also the danger of a worsening economic and health toll from the pandemic, which so far has been less deadly in Poland than in many Western European countries, killing 755 and infecting 15,047.
Kaczyński’s ploy left the rest of the country scrambling to figure out the new political and legal landscape.
Joanna Lemańska, head of one of the divisions of the Supreme Court, was nonplussed by Kaczyński — legally nothing more than a run-of-the-mill MP — dictating a verdict for what’s supposed to be an independent legal body.
“I was very surprised about the information that a decision has been taken about the [court’s] future ruling,” she told the Onet news portal.
Opposition candidates — who had conducted a debate with Duda on national television just before Kaczyński dropped his announcement — attacked the move, although there’s broad satisfaction that a vote they were very likely to lose has been delayed.
Robert Biedroń, the candidate of the left, called the way the decision was made a “coup d’état” and said that those responsible should face legal sanctions.
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
“Kaczyński stole Poland from us,” said Szymon Hołownia, a fast-rising independent candidate.
Duda said he was “very satisfied” with the decision to delay the vote.
It’s still unclear when a new vote will be held — with dates from June to August being suggested. The parliament on Thursday passed a law changing the format of the election to only allow mail-in ballots. Parliament is due to pass a new electoral law next week reinstating the electoral commission as the body running the election; it had been sidelined as Kaczyński attempted to ram through a May 10 vote.
It’s also unclear whether the existing candidates, each of whom had to gather 100,000 signatures to take part, will be automatically included in the new election, and whether new candidates will be able to run.
That opens a possible window of opportunity for Civic Platform, the largest opposition party. It could potentially shift candidates as its current nominee, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, is doing badly in opinion polls, although she did say it was an opposition success to halt the “insanity” of holding an election on Sunday.
The clock reset is also being greeted with relief in Brussels.
The European Commission was careful to stress that arranging elections is something that’s under the control of national authorities, but added that such a vote should be consistent with “European standards” that include “sound electoral processes, legal certainty refraining from short-term changes to electoral laws, free and secret suffrage and a fair electoral campaign.”
Katarina Barley, vice president of the European Parliament and a former German justice minister, was more cutting. She called the decision to delay the election “overdue,” but added, “It would be a mistake to think the PiS government’s undermining of democracy and the rule of law stops here … A route towards free and fair elections is still not visible.”