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Poland Delays Presidential Vote Amid Worry Over Democracy

Wojciech Moskwa and Marek Strzelecki

(Bloomberg) -- Poland delayed Sunday’s presidential election by more than a month to quell concerns that holding it during the height of the coronavirus pandemic via untested mail-in ballots may not be free or fair.

With the European Union’s largest former communist country under lockdown, the ruling Law & Justice Party has been trying to push through sweeping last-minute changes to the election law. It faced resistance from inside the ruling coalition, while the opposition said the amendments undermine the rule of law and favor the government’s candidate, President Andrzej Duda, who leads opinion polls.

“We worked out an agreement that guarantees an election that will be fully safe, democratic and transparent,” Jaroslaw Gowin, a junior-ruling party lawmaker who had pushed for a delay, said Thursday. “We delivered a solution that will ensure the legitimacy of the election won’t be questioned.”

Law & Justice and its allies approved the contested mail-in ballot legislation earlier in the day, which it says is needed to keep voters safe from contagion. The election will probably be held late in June, Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin told Radio RMF FM, and certainly before Duda’s current term ends on Aug. 6.

International election monitors say the postal-only process may create possibilities for fraud and weakens “public trust in the administration of elections.” The row has also fanned concern that some EU governments are using the pandemic as cover to strengthen their grip on power.

‘Whims and Opinions’

Since taking power in 2015, Law & Justice has been accused by the EU of veered away from the bloc’s democratic standards, particularly for judicial overhauls that increase politicians’ control over courts. The party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, rejects the EU’s liberal and multi-cultural values and vows to return the nation of 38 million to its “traditional Catholic roots.”

The concerns over the party’s last-minute changes to the election law follow a power grab by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who secured the right to rule his country indefinitely by decree in March.

Poland’s outgoing head of the Supreme Court and the human-rights ombudsman have warned that the ruling party’s just-passed law sidelines thousands of local election committees in favor of government-picked commissioners and leaves hundreds of thousands of Poles unable vote. Gowin said more amendments would address those concerns.

“Experts will prepare deep changes to the mail-only legislation focusing on the Electoral Commission’s role and making sure the ballot will be secretive and universal,” Gowin said.

Opposition parties, who’ve been campaigning to delay the ballot, aren’t celebrating, as uncertainties remain over future changes to the election law, as well as the legal basis for the delay.

Law & Justice said Poland’s top court would likely to void the May 10 vote because the ballot simply won’t take place on that date. That opens the process up to legal questions because the election won’t take place on the day it was officially ordered to be held.

“Elections are no longer decided by the Constitution,” said Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a lawmaker from the opposition Civic Platform opposition party. “This is all decided by a single person, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose whims and opinions have become the main source of Polish law. Such a situation has a name: dictatorship.”

(Updates with new quotes, passage of contested election bill, starting in the third paragraph.)

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