Hollow victory for Poland’s opposition as election delay is unlikely to make a difference. Meanwhile, under the cover of coronavirus, the government is threatening to roll back abortion and gay rights laws.
Just four days before the vote, Poland has pulled its presidential election.
The OSCE had warned to press ahead would “jeopardise” important democratic principles.
Opposition parties complain they have been unable to campaign during the coronavirus lockdown.
The vote now looks likely to take place in June. If so, that still gives them little chance to reach voters.
Lockdown measures remain in place, although it is possible schools may begin to return later this month.
By contrast, the incumbent, President Duda, has been able to use the coronavirus crisis to make regular broadcasts to the nation.
“A few weeks does not make much difference”, independent MEP and former Deputy Polish Ombudsman, Sylwia Spurek, told me.
The government is still trying to conduct an election during a pandemic, she says.
The governing Law and Justice Party (PiS), counters that “all constructive proposals” have been spurned by opposition.
Vote by post
The new vote will take place by postal ballot “due to the epidemic situation”.
This too, worries Sylwia Spurek. It “does not fulfil the requirements of the elections to be universal, equal and conducted by secret ballot”, she says.
The EU has appeared reluctant to speak out on the matter, publicly only repeating the need for Poland’s vote to be “free and fair”.
But behind the scenes, I’m told officials at the highest level are watching what is unfolding.
Former Bulgarian Prime Minister, Sergei Stanishev, has meanwhile accused the Law and Justice party of “using the current crisis and the power of government to skew the election.”
“President Duda is playing with marked cards”.
Threats to abortion and LGBT laws
And it is not just the election where there are concerns.
According to equality campaigners, Poland’s right-wing government is also using the virus lockdown to roll back social policies too.
Since the lockdown started, at a time when most countries only have only had time to legislate in response to the crisis, the Polish government has proposed a bill outlawing most abortions, and another which would make it illegal to teach minors about gay sex.
LGBT rights and abortion are issues which keep coming back in Polish politics.
Making it illegal to have an abortion in cases of serious fetal abnormality, would reduce the number of terminations by 97 per cent, according to campaigners.
Abortion would only be allowed if pregnancy was the result of rape or if the woman’s health was endangered.
Human Rights Watch has called it an attempt to “manipulate [the] pandemic to endanger women”.
The idea of making it illegal to teach about gay sex to under 18 year olds has echos of the UK’s “Section 28” which was in force from 1988 to 2003 (until 2000 in Scotland).
Teachers in Poland who flout such a law would face up to three years in prison.
The European Parliament has expressed “deep concern” about criminalising the teaching of LGBT issues saying “comprehensive and age-appropriate information about sex and sexuality…is essential for the creation of a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships.”
The lockdown made protests illegal, but local activist and green politician, Magdalena Gałkiewicz, said people found creative ways around the restrictions.
- Holding up banners in social distance queues outside supermarkets
- Taking protests online
- And forming long lines (two metres apart) outside parliament
The pressure seems to have worked. For now.
Both bills have been sent to committees for “further work”, according to Human Rights Watch.
There is every expectation they will return to parliament once the election is out of the way.