The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We asked what Poles think about voting in a pandemic and the election that was scheduled for May 10

This year’s electoral irregularities were far greater than anything reported in the past

Demonstrators protest Poland's upcoming presidential election in Wroclaw on Thursday. (Bartek Sadowski/Bloomberg News)

Polish voters were supposed to choose their country’s president on Sunday. But now that won’t happen.

Late on Thursday, the National Electoral Commission announced that in view of the government’s decision to strip it of the legal authority to print ballot papers, polling places will remain shut. A postal vote also won’t take place because the government’s decision to print mail-in ballots without legislative authorization led one of the small parties in the ruling coalition to balk.

How did Polish voters feel about voting in the run-up to last week’s chaotic events? The findings from our weekly surveys since early April suggest Polish voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea of an election held under pandemic conditions, under the rules proposed by the government. Here’s what you need to know.

Poland’s democratic backsliding began in 2015

This election may mark a new low point. Until now, Poland’s backsliding has been evident principally in the progressive breakdown of the rule of law that began with the capture and neutering of the Constitutional Tribunal in 2016 by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) that has since reached the Supreme Court, ordinary courts and the state prosecutorial service.

Poland’s presidential election just got more complicated

Media and civil society organizations have also found themselves under growing pressure, but elections have remained passably free, notwithstanding some concern on the part of international observers about their fairness. This pattern — in which free elections actually are the last thing to be undermined by democratically elected incumbents as backsliding unfolds — is not unique to Poland, as the latest Varieties of Democracy report shows.

In Poland, electoral irregularities observed this year were far greater than anything seen in the past. The PiS government tried to switch to a mail vote, with ballots designed and printed without legislative authorization, while the postal voting procedure — which the post office, not the National Electoral Commission, would oversee — would not have met the standards of secrecy and equality of the vote in a democracy, not to mention issues related to transparency in vote counting and protection against fraud.

The government wanted to win this election — now

So why was the government so insistent on going ahead, no matter what the human or reputational cost? Part of the answer lies in voter polls: Over the past five to six weeks, President Andrzej Duda (PiS) has pulled sharply ahead and was the preferred choice of 60 percent of Poles planning to participate in the election — which is only roughly 30 percent of eligible voters — while the other candidates faded to 10 percent or less.

Some of this dynamic was likely due to the fact that while other candidates struggled to stay visible amid the pandemic, Duda benefited from extensive coverage on Polish state radio and television. In addition, the major opposition candidates have been sending mixed messages to their potential voters, not wanting to legitimize what was shaping up to be a pseudo-democratic election on the one hand and not wanting to cede the field entirely on the other.

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Poles were deeply skeptical of this election

Since the beginning of April we have been conducting a weekly tracking survey online, with a roughly 700-person sample of Polish voters. A consortium of Polish media and businesses, as well as the European Commission, provided funding for this survey.

On the question of whether the government was right or wrong about going ahead with an election amid a pandemic, each week over three-quarters said that the government was making a mistake. And over two-thirds said that if the election did take place, it would have been invalid because it would have been held in a manner contrary to the electoral law and the Constitution. Likewise, nearly 70 percent said such an election would have been unfair because not all candidates had equal opportunity to campaign. (Poland had been under lockdown conditions from mid-March until the first week of May.)

Moreover, each week over half of respondents said they would have abstained from voting on the grounds that the election would have been conducted in violation of the law and the Constitution, while 20 percent intended to abstain for other reasons. Of the roughly 30 percent willing to participate, between 50 and 60 percent (so roughly 15 to 18 percent of the total electorate) intended to vote for the incumbent, with the rest splitting their votes among the opposition candidates.

Would participants have voted under “normal” circumstances? About 80 percent said they would have voted in a non-pandemic election, and the breakdown of their partisan preferences was very close to that from pre-pandemic polls from earlier in the year, with PiS close to the 40 percent mark, 10 points ahead of the opposition Civic Coalition.

Will Poland see a pro-democracy backlash?

It’s also worth noting that almost 72 percent of our respondents favor a democratic political system, compared to only 26 percent who favor the rule of a “strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections.” Over 80 percent disagree with the statement that the “government may break the rules of democracy if doing so lies in society’s interest.” And almost 60 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with the functioning of Poland’s democracy today.

Poland’s Parliament is now divided. What does this mean for the ruling Law and Justice party?

These findings suggest a majority of Poles remain committed to democracy. In this context, the government’s decision to go ahead with a highly questionable election during a pandemic — and its last-minute retreat prompted by rebellion in its own ranks — seems more compatible with accounts that emphasize top-down rather than bottom-up mechanisms of democratic erosion.

Five years ago, Poland’s backsliding began when a slim plurality of voters — 37.6 percent of those who turned out, or less than 20 percent of the total electorate — chose a populist right-wing PiS government bent on upending the country’s constitutional order. This government won reelection last year with 43.6 percent of the vote.

PiS’s relative popularity reflects a combination of generous social spending, successful use of patronage and clientelism, transformation of state media into a propaganda tube, and weakness of Poland’s opposition parties.

But a new presidential election must take place soon, either in person or by mail. The question is whether the widening disconnect between the government’s push to hold an election that won’t meet democratic standards and one that the electorate seems to reject in overwhelming numbers will shake this state of affairs.

Radosław Markowski is a professor of political science. He directs the Center for the Study of Democracy at SWPS University and is the principal investigator of the Polish National Election Study.

Hubert Tworzecki is an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta. His work focuses on political parties and electoral behavior in Central and Eastern Europe.