How (Not) to Elect a President in a Pandemic – The Case of Poland

Main Image Credit Courtesy of Kancelaria Sejmu/Rafał Zambrzycki/Wikimedia Commons

The Polish authorities may have done well in stemming the coronavirus pandemic, but they are in a political dilemma.

It has been a month since most European countries instituted severe social distancing measures, border closures, transport restrictions and other solutions in an effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

Poland was among those countries which rapidly introduced contingency measures. Within 10 days of detecting its first case, the Polish government issued two extraordinary decrees. The first entailed closing public venues such as schools, theatres and cinemas, while the second enforced a complete closure of the country’s borders including severing all scheduled international flight connections. By the end of March all gatherings of more than two people were banned, and citizens were told to stay at home unless engaged in essential activities such as buying food, or working in key sectors of the economy.

These drastic measures were presented by the government as an efficient response to the crisis, in light of what was happening in the so-called ‘old EU’ – Italy and Spain, among others. The cabinet of Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and the ruling Law and Justice party need to appear sturdy, efficient and successful. After all, they are still insisting that they will hold the presidential election on 10 May ­– when many believe coronavirus will peak in Poland. But is this plan at all realistic, given the restrictions in place, and why is the timing so important for the Polish ruling coalition?

In the Polish constitutional system, the directly-elected president has two key prerogatives which make the office holder more than a mere ceremonial head of state. The president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and chairs the State Security Council but, more importantly, is also an independent wing of the executive branch of government, and must agree every single act of legislation for it to enter into force and has the right to turn legislation down. That decision can be overturned, but only by a two-thirds majority vote in the lower house of parliament – something close to unachievable without a broader cross-party consensus.

The incumbent president, Andrzej Duda, a former Law and Justice rank and file parliamentarian, has been an outspoken supporter of the government and helped it pass many controversial acts without hesitation throughout his five-year term which started in 2015. Fast forward to 2020, and the comfortable institutional duopoly enjoyed by the Polish conservative elite is now at risk. Should Duda not be re-elected, this would mean Poland’s shift to an illiberal democracy modelled on Viktor Orban’s Hungary will be officially over, at least when the current president’s term expires in August 2020.

The chairman of the Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, who is widely regarded as the real kingmaker in Polish politics, faces a real dilemma due to the coronavirus outbreak, even if he disregards it publicly. The government now bears the full responsibility of handling the situation in the country and even if it remains under control, Poland’s economic growth is expected to slow down. So the fear prevailing in the ruling party is that, should the elections be postponed as a result of the current health emergency, there may be an electoral backlash against the ruling party at a later stage. And a Duda electoral failure would inevitably lead to a curb on the unlimited power the government currently enjoys.

It is for that reason that the Polish government’s steps to preserve the original date of the poll in the run up to Easter were inevitably sloppy and sometimes ridiculous – especially in the context of its tough coronavirus measures. At the time of writing, the official legislative proposal is to give all voters the right to vote by postal vote only. This is physically impossible to organise a month before the election is to take place. The move would also lead to the disenfranchisement of many groups of voters, such as the hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens residing in other European countries, who will be expected – but largely unable – to travel to Polish consulates in their places of residence in order to cast their votes. Warsaw’s position towards this election is also fairly unusual – the only instance of a poll taking place in Europe during the current pandemic was in France on 15 March with record low turnouts and a potential spike in infections as the only real outcomes, and the second round of the French vote was, therefore, postponed. And the same outcome can be expected in Poland as well – over 80% of Poles claim that they would not take part in the ballots, if these go ahead for 10 May.

The government is heading for a serious constitutional crisis, regardless of what steps it takes at this point. If it continues to press for holding the election as planned, any candidate voted into the highest state office as a result of a turnout of just a fifth of the electorate – as opinion polls now suggest – would risk their mandate being invalidated by the Supreme Court (per article 129 of the Constitution) leading to the rescheduling of the poll and a huge degree of political chaos.

In the more likely scenario that the Polish executive finally budges under criticism and joins the ranks of other European states who have postponed ballots, the elections will not take place for a while as the formal procedures for the ballot require at least 90 days. This will subsequently lead to another constitutional difficulty, as the earliest possible election date will fall after the term of President Duda expires. Chapter Four of the Polish constitution only stipulates that key elected state organs should have their term prolonged as necessary and there is no precedent as to how this should be done. Therefore, any decision made towards addressing this issue will be very controversial and will result in protracted internal conflict.

One solution perhaps would be for the Speaker of the Sejm (lower house) to step in as Acting President – a solution which is normally used when the incumbent is either temporarily or permanently incapable of performing duties. Such was the case when President Lech Kaczyński died in the Smolensk air crash of 2010.

The story of this great election dilemma in Poland is a reminder of the curious ways by which the coronavirus pandemic can affect the internal political order of seemingly stable democracies. Even when the health emergency finally diminishes, Poland could be left with long-lasting scars to its social and constitutional order, which in turn would affect the overall security of the region where Poland plays a vital role – both as an important NATO eastern flank anchor state and the biggest economy in the east of the EU.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Wojciech Pawlus

Outreach and Implementation Manager

Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies

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