WARSAW (Reuters) – The Polish Senate starts an acrimonious debate on Tuesday on legislation that would allow a presidential election scheduled for May 10 to be held entirely by postal ballot instead of at polling stations because of the coronavirus pandemic.
How parliament votes on the government-backed plan will affect whether the ballot is held on time, or later, and could determine the future of Poland’s ruling coalition led by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Opinion polls suggest that President Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally who is crucial to the party’s policy agenda, could win re-election by a landslide if the ballot is held soon.
However, the opposition and some in the ruling coalition want the ballot postponed by a substantial period of time – months or even two years – amid concerns over public health and the fairness of an election held during a pandemic.
It is too early to say what the legislature will decide, but there are several scenarios that could play out in Poland in the coming weeks as a result of the outcome of its vote.
POSTAL BALLOT WINS APPROVAL
First to debate the proposed legislation this week is the upper chamber, the Senate. Most observers expect the opposition-dominated chamber to reject it, in a vote likely to take place on Tuesday or Wednesday.
However the Senate votes, the final word rests with the lower chamber, the Sejm. PiS and its ruling coalition allies hold a tight majority there and the party has pushed hard in recent weeks to ensure voting discipline.
If the Sejm overturns a Senate rejection, or in the unlikely scenario of the Senate also agreeing with it, PiS is expected to move the presidential ballot to May 17 or May 23 to allow for more time to prepare.
The proposed legislation gives it the option to do so.
POSTAL BALLOT IS BLOCKED
Even though PiS holds a majority in the lower house, it is possible it may lose the vote on the legislation there.
A junior partner in its coalition, Accord, has said it opposes holding the election now.
Accord has 18 deputies out of 235 ruling coalition lawmakers in the 460-seat Sejm. It is not clear how many of them will oppose the postal vote but as few as five could leave the PiS unable to overrule the Senate’s decisions.
In theory, that would mean Poland would go to the polls on Sunday. But preparations for this are lagging, and the head of the state electoral commission has said it would be impossible to organise it at such short notice.
PIS OPTIONS IF PLAN BLOCKED
PiS has not said what its Plan B is. It is not possible under current Polish law to change an election date after it has been announced.
A rebellion by Accord could break up the ruling coalition and plunge Poland into political chaos at a time when the pandemic requires a strong government response to prop up a tottering economy.
PiS might end up governing as a minority cabinet, relying on ad hoc support. A snap parliamentary election could not be ruled out.
To avoid having to hold the presidential election on May 10, PiS could announce a state of emergency or natural disaster, something it has so far refused to do, arguing that there are not sufficient grounds to do so.
Under the constitution, this would then trigger a postponement of the presidential election. It could not then be held until at least 90 days after the eventual lifting of any such state of emergency.
PRESIDENT COULD RESET THE CLOCK
Polish media, citing unnamed sources, have also mentioned the possibility that Duda could resign as president before the end of his term.
Under such a scenario a new vote would have to be announced no later than two weeks after his resignation and the election would be held within a period of 60 days from the day of the announcement.
A proposal by Accord to hold the presidential election in two years would require changing the constitution but this option does not have sufficient support in parliament.
(Reporting by Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk; Editing by Gareth Jones)