Why you should care about the elections in Poland right now !
Photo credit: wikipedia
“I must admit it’s a bit boring. I mean, I understand you’re into it, because it concerns your country, but if you weren’t a close friend I’d never be interested in what’s going on in Poland right now”.
This was my friend’s answer after I asked him if the BBC was at all interested about the upcoming presidential elections in Poland (planned for 10th May 2020). - “They probably feel there’s more important news right now, no one will follow what’s happening in a small, Eastern-European country like Poland or Hungary”.
OK well for a start, Poland is 4 times bigger than Hungary. With 38 million people living within Polish borders (and over 2 millions elsewhere in the EU) it’s the 5th most populated European country. It has more citizens than Belgium, Austria, Portugal and Sweden combined. Those 40 million people are about to hit some serious trouble, and yes, it also concerns YOU. Here’s why:
1. A quick summary of what’s been happening in Poland in the past few years.
In May 2015, a pretty much unknown guy called Andrzej Duda unexpectedly won the presidential election for his political party, Law and Justice. If you have not heard of these guys before, the clue’s in the name. Their leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski was once called by Le Monde “the most dangerous emerging populist in Europe”, and that was before he actually got into power by winning the general election in 2015.
Does the name Kaczynski ring a bell? Yes that’s right, we once had a president with that name. And yes, he died in a plane crash in 2010. We are now talking about his twin brother, and that plane crash in Smolensk was the single best thing that ever happened to his political career - it has enabled him to turn Poland into a State of Fear.
Remember that episode of House of Cards when Kevin Spacey, with a creepy grin on his face, tells his wife his plans to keep hold of power in the US by engineering fake terrorist attacks in his own country? With the Smolensk disaster and the narrative he drew from it Kaczynski’s pretty much done exactly that. A huge amount of people still believe, despite clear evidence to the contrary by international experts, that the plane crash wasn’t an accident but a deliberate action staged and performed by Russia. These same people make up Law and Justice’s hard electorate, i.e. they will vote Law and Justice no matter what, just like many Trump voters would in America - against all facts, morality and reason. In fact, Trump can only envy Kaczynski’s influence over society. Never in his wildest dreams could he imagine establishing such power all across the national institutions, including the ones that should be politically neutral. Not only has he managed to get a majority in parliament, which enables him to rule independently, but he’s also managed to gain control over national media, the State court, the highest ranked judges in the country, AND - the president himself, who’s been signing every single executive order he’s given without asking any questions! Isn’t that every authoritarian leader’s ultimate fantasy?
2. If these guys are so evil, surely this upcoming election is an opportunity to vote them out, right?
With Covid-19 dominating the news and lockdown dominating our lives, no candidate apart from Duda has been able to run a proper presidential campaign and reach potential voters. With the election in mind, the parliament has recently decided to donate 500,000€ to State TV (you’d think the national health service might have been a better choice), thus clearing the stage for Andrzej Duda, who then took his campaign even further and went on tour around Poland (organising political rallies despite the lockdown already being in place and ignoring health procedures. On many pictures, you can see him without a mask, gloves, etc.
Poland, who closed its borders about a week before France or Italy did, is now trying to convince the population that they’re safe and sound, and that there’s no reason not to run the election. Let me get one thing straight: no matter where you are in the world and what your opinion of the pandemic is, you must admit one thing - it does cause chaos in people’s lives! This is no different in Poland, where many sectors of the economy see people are in despair, especially the self-employed, small businesses, or artists who are not able to work and are getting no help or compensation from the state (unlike other European countries, Poland hasn’t actually declared a state of emergency yet - which means employee aren’t getting paid if they are not able to work). The schools are closed until 24th of May. Does this sound like a good moment to organise an (expensive) election?
The reason they are pushing for it to go ahead is dead simple: With a) no realistic chance for an opposition candidate to run a campaign, b) people unable to protest in the streets, and c) the general public preoccupied with COVID-related problems, Law and Justice know this is their best chance to win. On top of this, it is expected many people will choose not to vote in protest. Unfortunately, in Poland there is no minimum voting turnout for an election to be validated, Andrzej Duda only needs his hard electorate to vote. Even if 20% of citizens legally entitled to vote show up at the urns, it will be enough for him to win.
This brings us back to calling the State of Emergency - it would legally forbid them to maintain the elections, which is why they’re not calling it.
3. So what’s happening?
After the death of his twin brother in 2010, once again Kaczynski is using an unpredictable and terrible national disaster as an opportunity to further his own political agenda. Not only can he push his candidate through the election with little (or no) real protest from opposition parties, he also decided this was a fantastic time to “check” who his voters are by deciding to run the election by postal vote only.
Until now, voting by correspondence (internet, registered mail, or proxy voting) in Poland wasn’t legal. It wasn’t even in the constitution. Unfortunately, Law and Justice doesn’t value the constitution very much and decided to change it in order to make the reelection of Duda possible. Changing the constitution sounds like a delicate matter at the best of times. In the midst of a global pandemic, it seems shocking and unacceptable.
Each person legally entitled to vote (around 30 million people) is going to receive a voting card by mail. After marking the name of their candidate on that card, they’re supposed to send it back to the voting commission, also by mail..
In order to be sure the vote was issued by the right person, you are also supposed to put your name, address and social security number together with the voting card in the same envelope. I suppose you see the problem right there...
4. The madness continues
Elections in Poland are legally based on 5 adjectives. They have to be:
- accessible to everyone
- proportional (unlike in the US, each person/party gets the number of mandates proportional to the number of votes).
If the election is really going to take place on 10th of May, at least 4 of those rules are going to be violated.
1) They won’t be anonymous - even the most democratic government in the world simply can’t guarantee the safety of a package containing both your filled voting card AND all your personal details in one place.
2) Same goes for direct.
3) They certainly won’t be voluntary. The gouvernement issued a decree stating a “penalty of up to 3 years in prison for damaging or not returning a voting card”. Besides, who can guarantee that within confined households people aren’t forcing others to vote for a certain candidate against their will ?
4) “Accessible to everyone” is a different matter altogether. Not only will this year’s voting not be accessible to expats (who generally vote against Law and Justice, at least in Europe), but it also makes it difficult for people temporarily living away from their primary residence, including students, temporary workers, politicians (sic!) or simply people who decided to live through the Covid-19 crisis in a secondary home.
5. Why does this concern me and why should we be speaking about this?
Unfortunately, if the changes to the constitution are approved, it’ll be too late. By the time you read this article, Andrzej Duda has probably been reelected president of Poland, Kaczynski will have access to a complete list of voters in Poland with their personal details and political preferences, and democracy will have been violated in the EU on an unprecedented scale. Never before have we watched the democracy of such a big country fail despite being a part of the greatest continental democratic structure in recent history!
Europe, wake up! Think about the message this is going to send to every single aspiring political party in all European countries! Think about the potential problems this is going to raise. You thought Brexit was bad? Do you have any idea how big the Polish market is and how many European companies invest in it? Poland has been one of the fastest growing markets within Europe for years, and Law and Justice is literally killing our economy. Poland is also a country between Germany and Russia, its border to the East is a border of the Shengen zone.
Polish people have an interesting mentality, some of them can still vividly remember the times of communism, empty shelves in stores, no travelling, no freedom of speech or right to protest. Then there’s the more recent Polish history after 1989 when this country switched 180 degrees from communism to capitalism in its most aggressive, American-like version. Poles seemed to be fascinated by the West, and have aspired for many years to be perceived as Western Europeans rather than Eastern Europeans. That bizarre duality gives them the ability to communicate effectively with both Russians and Westerners, to understand both - such a key skill for a business, but also diplomacy! This country both separates and unites Europe to Russia.
Unfortunately, this fine balance has recently become threatened like never before. With Law and Justice and their State of Fear (called the 4th Republic) many Poles seem to forget what their life was like before 1989 (or 2004, when Poland was officially integrated into EU structures). People no longer remember what it was like to wait 18 hours to cross the border, with custom officials walking around checking everyone’s passports, where you needed a visa to enter (or leave) your country. It’s like they have historical amnesia...
Is Poland going to be kicked out of the EU for its undemocratic, irresponsible behaviour? Probably not. We’ve just seen that’s not an easy thing to do. Even the departure of Great-Britain, which was totally voluntary, caused huge chaos. The EU will remember this and won’t want to repeat that mistake.
What we might be facing is the end of Europe as we know it. The end of that open, inclusive multicultural structure, full of Erasmus students and temporary workers, where people could move, speak up and live freely without having to ask for anyone’s permission. People like Kaczynski would be delighted to prove that none of it was ever going to last, that “so-called democratic freedom is only for the weak” and the only limit to power is how far you are willing to reach for it. This is scary, and it’s totally up to us to defend our freedom, to stand up for cases like Poland for everyone’s sake and understand that what’s good about the EU is how highly it has valued human rights throughout the years, the one thing we are not willing to sacrifice! Human rights have no nationality. We should not have to vote for them in order to keep them in place, they should be granted ! Clearly they aren’t, and that’s why I’m calling for every person who’s reading this now to speak up and fight for those values, because if there’s one thing that people like Kaczynski are afraid of, it’s the power of a united front. Let’s be united for human rights! Let’s be united for democracy! Let’s be united for human diversity, with all the power that comes with it!
Thank you for reading.