Poland’s rolling coup d’état to fail

It is not easy to hold your horses when no one is watching. The temptation is too big not to reach out for even more power than you already have. It is there, waiting for you to grab it. No one watches you. There is fire and storms and pandemics elsewhere. You are in a perfect position to benefit, to take what is yours to take, what you think you always wanted and deserved. Welcome to Budapest.

There is a big difference between Hungary and Poland. In Hungary there is a classical personality cult in development. The current consolidation of power is a turning point from a democracy to a dictatorship.

Is Poland next? Clearly there is a temptation. The scheduled for 10 May presidential election constitutes a major opportunity. But there is no personality cult in Poland. There is an attempt, but the likelihood for its success is slim. That makes the situation different from the Hungarian brothers and sisters.

Jarosław Kaczyński

Since last fall Law and Justice rules as uncontested one-party force. Yet the posture of the PiS leader has diminished since. Jarosław Kaczyński rules from behind, but the 2019 elections brought him fewer MPs than what he hoped for. He is a party leader, but not of the government and ageing (71), which is not irrelevant. He is not executing full control any more. He intervenes only in key moments, allowing others to play the game, including the three most important actors in the government. Mateusz Morawiecki is the prime minister and a favourite of Mr Kaczyński to inherit the PiS leadership, but clearly not yet in control of the entire party. Zbigniew Ziobro is the justice minister responsible for the (unpopular abroad) judicial reforms, and a leader of a junior coalition partner, Solidary Poland (usually considered as hawkish), and Jarosław Gowin, the science minister who also leads a junior coalition party, Agreement (the doves). Both Mr Ziobro and Mr Gowin control about 18 MPs each, making the Morawiecki government dependent on their support. The hawks of Mr Ziobro and Mr Kaczyński’s PiS lead the judicial reforms over the recent years without much enthusiasm of Mr Gowin, who, nevertheless supported the reforms. Last fall Mr Ziobro tried to oust PM Morawiecki, whom he perceives to be weak. Mr Kaczyński defended his favourite, but the situation showed the aspirations of the smaller parties could no longer be disregarded.

Jarosław Gowin

Now it seems Mr Gowin may abandon Mr Kaczyński to defend the remains of the Polish democracy. The seriousness of the coronavirus elections is such that no presidential elections can take place in May. The entire opposition says so and they give the case of recent French local elections where it was a mistake to hold the vote. Poland has about 3150 covid-19 cases and is still ahead of the anticipated peak of the virus pandemic. Yet Mr Kaczyński in a rare radio interview stated that the presidential elections should take place nevertheless. Why? “Stability”, says the PiS leader. More realistic is the calculation that it would be more difficult for the incumbent, president Andrzej Duda to seek re-election when the economic effects of the coronavirus take a large toll on the population. Hence PiS is pushing for the last moment Mr Duda can possibly win the vote, especially if the opposition calls for a boycott. But can the elections be organised in the first place?

If the issue is about protecting health and life of people and there is no room for a political campaigning of candidates, then there is no way thousands of polling stations could be organised. On the very night the first ideas of the government how to counter-balance the economic shut-down are voted in the Sejm (lower house), Law and Justice presents a surprise amendment: to allow for all the 60+ year olds to vote by post.

Andrzej Duda

Red lights go off. There is no history of massive postal voting in Poland. This proposal is never announced, never discussed, just proposed last minute and voted through. This is why and this is when first comments about a rolling coup d’état in Poland start to appear. You cannot change the electoral law for six months before the vote, says a long-standing practice pronounced by the Constitutional Tribunal. PiS defends its idea it was a “technical” adjustment not changing rules of the game. Yet when hundreds of local governments signalled they are not going to organise the vote in order not to compromise human life, PiS response is to move with a vote on a postal ballot for all 30 million voters. “If they can do it in Bavaria, so can we”, is the logic. No standard polling booth is foreseen to be organised on 10 May.

PiS politicians say they want to engage in a conversation with the opposition. But when the opposition-dominated Senate sends its amendments to the Sejm (approving the economic assistance to businesses and workers, but rejecting the electoral law changes), all of them are rejected by Law and Justice without any consideration or debate.

The outrage of the opposition is massive. The most popular presidential candidate Ms Kidawa-Błońska suspends formally her campaign. Other candidates respond there are no campaigns any way. The only candidate campaigning is president Duda, who visits factories producing disinfecting liquid and establishing a new account on TikTok. His travels contradict the governmental message #stayathome and are always accompanied by the state TV.

The opposition argues that not only no elections can take place in the current environment, a state of natural disaster should be invoked. Under the rules of a natural disaster state a postponement of the presidential elections is possible.

Jarosław Kaczyński nevertheless is forcing his ideas through. At least he attempts. He does not control the Senate, which can deliberate on a proposal for 30 days before Sejm rejects its amendments. It will be too late – if the new law on how to organise elections comes to effect in early May there is no logistical way to hold the vote, in a classical or postal way.

There is also an internal opposition to Mr Kaczyński’s push for 10 May vote. First are the medical law-makers of PiS, including the health minister, who is a close ally of the PiS leader, who are sceptical of any May vote being possible. Hence the idea for a massive postal ballot.

Then comes Mr Gowin with his open opposition to any vote on 10 May. He says a new election should be organised in one-year time.

As of now there is no majority for a postal vote. There is no agreement of the local governments to organise the traditional vote and no way to force them. It is unlikely the elections are going to be organised.

What will happen instead? The latest idea is to change the country’s constitution to allow for Mr Duda to rule for two more years without an option to run again in 2022. The opposition is against changing of the country’s top law.

What looks like the attempted coup d’etat of Jarosław Kaczyński and PiS’ forcing elections, risking human life and changing rules of the game a month before the vote, seems to have failed. If the attempt is truly successful it would not be the first time Poland flirts with a non-democratic alternative in governance.

Still, a solution needs to be found. The good news it is up for the parliament to work out the way out of the crisis, not a single-handed dictator.

It may be that the Polish democracy is defended for now.

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