Poland's presidential election is set to go ahead as scheduled on Sunday, but critics have accused the governing party of jeopardising public health for political gain due to coronavirus outbreak.

Participants carry Polish flags during a May Day demonstration on May 1, 2020.
Participants carry Polish flags during a May Day demonstration on May 1, 2020. (Reuters)

Voters are still in the dark as to whether Poland's presidential election will go ahead as scheduled on Sunday amid mounting pressure for a delay due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government is still seeking parliamentary approval to conduct the election by postal ballot, despite widespread concern that it would not be fair, legal or safe.

Polls suggest that PiS-allied incumbent President Andrzej Duda could capture more than 50 percent of the vote for a first-round victory.

But critics have accused the governing party of jeopardising public health for political gain.

They contend that even a postal vote could put citizens at risk of catching coronavirus, as the ballots still have to be delivered and counted by hand.

Underscoring those fears, one recent survey found that only one in four eligible voters questioned wanted the ballot to go ahead as scheduled on May 10.

Poles have been under a stay-at-home order since late March to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Testing for the virus has been limited in Poland, but officials say it has killed almost 700 people and infected 14,000 in the EU country of 38 million.

While restrictions were eased on Monday, with shopping malls and hotels allowed to open, schools remain shut and masks coupled with social distancing are mandatory outside the home.

Rights groups concerned

Global human rights and election watchdogs have echoed concerns raised by the opposition that changing election rules so close to voting day would be unconstitutional.

Human Rights Watch warned last week of its "serious concerns about free and fair elections and democratic rule of law" in Poland, echoing a statement by election monitors at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Even Poland's powerful Catholic church, which is close to the PiS, has urged political parties to "seek solutions which do not raise legal doubts or suspicions of violating the constitutional order or the principles of a free and honest poll".

Parliament is due to decide on Thursday whether to approve the postal ballot.

With even some PiS lawmakers opposed, it was unclear on Monday whether the government would scrape together enough votes to pass the legislation.

Analysts have suggested that a failure to adopt the measure could have far-reaching consequences for the PiS, including losing its already slim majority.

But even if the postal vote is adopted, it will "take a miracle" to organise the ballot by Sunday, according to Sylwester Marciniak, Poland's chief elections commissioner.

"It's impossible from an organisational standpoint" to get ballots to all eligible voters, he told local media, referring in part to tens of thousands living abroad in areas where strict lockdowns are in force.

"There's huge pressure from many sides, including the Catholic church and chief elections commissioner, meaning the PiS could relent and seek a later date," Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a Warsaw University political scientist, told AFP.

'Fundamental rights' 

Without making a formal proposal, PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has hinted at a delay to May 17 or 23, although his party has also raised the possibility of postponing the ballot and thereby extending Duda's term, by two years.

Morawiecki has rejected opposition calls to declare a state of disaster or emergency over the pandemic that would mean the election is automatically delayed.

And Duda took to Twitter on Monday to deny media rumours he could resign in order to allow the PiS to set a new election date for this summer.

The row surrounding the election has underscored fresh concerns about democratic standards in Poland.

Last week the European Commission launched its fourth infringement procedure against PiS-authored judicial reforms, which it says test the rule of law by undermining judicial independence.

Announcing the measure, Commissioner Vera Jourova also appeared to caution the PiS government over its handling of the presidential election amid the pandemic.

"We cannot compromise or put in lockdown our fundamental rights and values," Jourova said.

"The virus must not kill democracy."

Postal workers raise alarm

Poland's postal workers are growing increasingly concerned, arguing they are not equipped to carry out the vote safely and effectively amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Unresolved issues include how to deliver ballots to damaged or missing postal boxes, ensuring ballots go to the right people and protecting oneself when interacting with voters under quarantine, postal workers and their union leaders said.

One 32-year-old postal worker in central Warsaw said he was worried last-minute planning could lead to problems on election day and those postal workers could be held liable for anything that goes wrong, like undelivered or damaged ballots.

"There's almost no communication,” he told Reuters, asking not to be identified as postal workers were told last month not to speak to the press.

"I am of course worried that I could infect someone," he said.

Draft legislation being debated by parliament says details of how ballots should be delivered and picked up would be outlined by appropriate cabinet ministers.

Poland has confirmed 14,006 cases of coronavirus and 698 deaths.

Source: AFP