CIVICUS speaks with Małgorzata Szuleka about Poland’s recent presidential elections, held under the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ruling party’s use of anti-LGBTQI+ rhetoric to mobilise its electorate. Małgorzata is a lawyer at the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) Poland, one of the largest and oldest human rights organisations in Poland and the region. HFHR Poland represents victims of human rights abuses in court proceedings, conducts research and monitors human rights violations. Since 2015 it has actively monitored the increasing rule of law violations in Poland. It works with partners in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the European Union (EU) and the USA.
After rescheduling, the Polish elections were held in June and July 2020. What was civil society’s position on having an election during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The elections were originally scheduled for May 2020 and organising them posed a huge legal problem because there was no legal mechanism to postpone them. The only way to reschedule them was to announce a state of emergency, as provided for by the constitution. No elections may be organised during a state of emergency or within the next 90 days of it ending. From a constitutional perspective, an official declaration that the country was experiencing an epidemic would give the government the prerogative to introduce the state of emergency. This would automatically extend the term of office of the president until after regular elections could be scheduled, once the epidemic was over. However, the government did not follow this process. The elections were rescheduled and the run-off vote between the two leading candidates was held on 12 July 2020 on very dubious legal grounds. However, this wasn’t questioned by neither the government majority, nor the opposition.
Civil society organisations (CSOs) first pushed the government to organise the elections in a proper way, urging it to announce a state of emergency. Once this didn’t happen, CSOs tried to raise the issue of international monitoring, mainly in terms of fairness and financing of the campaign. The problem was that the election was expected to be free but not fair. Public media was biased towards the candidate supported by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, President Andrzej Duda, and extremely critical and unprofessional towards any opposition candidate. Even though no state of emergency had been declared, many fundamental rights such as the freedoms of assembly and access to information were limited. These were major concerns.
There was also the problem of the Supreme Court confirming the validity of the elections. On 12 July, President Duda was re-elected for a second term by a tight margin. He received 51 per cent of the vote while the opposition Civic Coalition contender received 49 per cent. Turnout was barely above 68 per cent, and more than 5,800 complaints were submitted regarding irregularities in the process. The Supreme Court ruled that 92 of those complaints were justified but had not influenced the final result, so it declared the results valid. Sadly, this decision completely ignored the problem of the constitutional and legal grounds for organising the elections in the first place.
Were measures adopted to protect people during the campaign and voting process? Did the pandemic have any impact on turnout?
The organisation of the campaign involved sanitary measures regarding social distancing and mask use. But these provisions were not fully respected on both sides. For campaigning purposes, the government loosened some restrictions; for example, even though face mask use was mandatory, pictures were published of the prime minister not wearing one in public. Also of concern was the fact that many public authorities engaged in political campaigning alongside President Duda. Public institutions were instrumentalised by ruling politicians. The government security centre, responsible for coordination and information in case of natural calamities or danger, sent out mass text messages on election day. Every voter received a message that said that people over 60 years old, pregnant women and people with disabilities could vote without waiting in line. This might have been used to mobilise the core electorate of the ruling party. This is just one example, but it could be an indication of the role played by official institutions to tilt the playing field in favour of the PiS party.
Was media coverage during the election fair?
Public media coverage was absolutely unfair. The rest of the coverage, mainly by private media, was relatively good; it definitely was not as bad as public media coverage, which was used for propaganda and enhanced President Duda’s campaign.
One of elections complaints brought to the Supreme Court specifically referred to media coverage. It stated that public television supported the incumbent while systematically discrediting his rival, and that public institutions and officials repeatedly violated correct conduct by supporting only one of the candidates. But the problem with the entire institution of election complaints is that you need to prove not only that the alleged irregularity happened, but also that it had an impact on the election results. In presidential elections such as this one, this is very difficult to prove. Additionally, the electoral code doesn’t regulate the work of the media, so it’s hard to make the legal claim that the media should operate differently. And if you do, it is also difficult to prove that particular coverage of a particular candidate, or the lack of coverage, resulted in a particular election result. We can intuitively assume this, particularly in view of such tight results, but it is very difficult to create a solid legal case.
What does President Duda’s re-election mean for democracy and human rights in Poland?
It is a continuation of a very worrying trend. Out of all possible campaign issues, President Duda chose to focus on stoking homophobia. The campaign took place in a context of a years-long backsliding of the rule of law, in the middle of a crisis of relations between Poland and the EU, during a huge healthcare challenge and on the verge of an economic crisis that will affect everyone in Poland. But none of these issues were the focus of the political campaign and public discussion. President Duda mainly spoke about LGBTQI+ people posing a threat to our Christian traditional heritage, equating homosexuality with paedophilia. The issue was narrowed down to this divisive, outrageous and dehumanising narrative by the PiS party. It was a very pragmatic move from PiS spin doctors because it mobilised the very core of the electorate. All of a sudden LGBTQI+ groups and communities became the scapegoat for everything that is wrong in Poland. It is outrageous how much this issue was politicised and how it was used to dehumanise this minority group. It was painful and heartbreaking to watch.
And the campaign was far from the end of it. President Duda is just a representative of the ruling PiS party, so he will say whatever he needs to keep them aligned. This is just a matter of calculation and internal power struggles. In June, the PiS party targeted LGBTQI+ people. In July, it targeted victims of domestic violence by starting discussion on withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention. In August, it proposed to register CSOs that are financed from abroad. Now I don’t know who is going to be their next enemy. It’s not only about being homophobic but rather about this governing majority always needing an enemy to confront or blame.
We just entered a phase in which there will be no elections for the next three years so we can expect a huge consolidation of power and the government doing everything that it dreams of, such as creating pressure on CSOs, further polarising the media, targeting specific minority groups and escalating the conflict with the EU. We can expect all of this to happen over the next three years. The only thing that can stop them is pragmatic evaluation about whether this is needed at this time or whether there might be something more important to do. But I think the crisis of democracy and human rights in Poland will deepen.
Civic space in Poland is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.