WARSAW — During coronavirus lockdown, millions of Europeans are trying their hand at new recipes.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is no different.
But instead of rummaging in the pantry for bacon, flour, onions, potatoes, rendered fat and a dash of salt to prepare a pan of pierogis, the nationalist party is rooting around in law books, parliamentary procedure, courts and the civil service to cook up an election.
Its goal is to ensure that a presidential vote scheduled for May 10 — where its favored candidate, incumbent President Andrzej Duda, is far ahead in opinion polls — goes ahead despite the pandemic.
POLITICO took a look at some of the ingredients that PiS is throwing into the pot to get Duda elected.
1. There’s only one cook in this kitchen
Every well-run kitchen needs a head chef, and there’s no doubt who calls the shots in Poland. It’s Jarosław Kaczyński, the 70-year-old MP who founded PiS and is the country’s de facto ruler.
Everyone from Duda to Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki regularly makes pilgrimages to the grimy office building near central Warsaw where PiS has its headquarters and Kaczyński has his office to get instructions.
Kaczyński has spent his life utterly devoted to politics and the pursuit of power. His goal is a fundamental reshaping of Polish society. He has little sympathy for the people and institutions that were in charge of Poland for the quarter-century from the end of communism in 1989. His aim is to use his party’s majority position to create new business elites, put the courts, media and civil service under tighter political control, and rebuild the nation based on traditional national and Roman Catholic values.
2. Add a pinch of politics
Duda’s reelection is crucial to Kaczyński’s plan.
He plucked Duda from the backbenches of the European Parliament in 2015, and an unexpectedly strong campaign culminated in Duda winning the election — to everyone, including Kaczyński’s, surprise.
That was followed by a thumping win for PiS in a parliamentary vote — a feat that the party accomplished again last year.
If Duda loses the presidency, then Kaczyński’s program goes up in flames. An opposition president could veto legislation and block efforts to take political control of the courts.
There is a legal way to delay the election. The government would have to declare a natural disaster, which dictates that elections can only be held 90 days after the emergency is lifted. But PiS is worried that a fall election could be much trickier for Duda, especially if the pandemic gets worse.
3. A dash of pork
PiS has romped to victories in large part thanks to generous social welfare promises, most of which were fulfilled.
The government lowered the retirement age, boosted the number of annual pension payments from 12 to 14, and brought in a benefit of 500 złoty (€110) per month per child, from the second child on (poorer families get money for every child).
That’s made the party enormously popular with masses of Poles who’ve seen a dramatic improvement in their material status — key in making PiS the most powerful force in Polish politics.
4. Throw out the recipe book
Good cooking is all about flair and not strictly following the recipe.
PiS has thrown out just about all the rules and procedures that apply to elections in its push to hold the vote despite growing alarm at the number of coronavirus cases in the country; as of Thursday there were 10,511 cases and 454 deaths. Those numbers are expected to keep rising.
That makes a conventional election very difficult to pull off as it involves thousands of polling stations, about 270,000 people to run them, and millions of Poles risking their health by lining up to cast ballots.
In response, the lower house of parliament — the Sejm — controlled by PiS, raced through legislation earlier this month to change the election into an all-postal one. That’s despite a previous court ruling forbidding any changes to electoral rules six months before the vote.
That bill is now stuck in the upper house, the Senate, where the opposition has a one-seat majority. It can sit on legislation for 30 days before sending it back to the Sejm — in this case until May 6.
That leaves only four days before the proposed election date, which is too little time to organize a postal vote — something that’s never been done in Poland.
Not to worry.
Despite the lack of any legislation, ballots are being printed, Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin admitted earlier this week. The post office — which is supposed to deliver them — is sending legally dubious requests to local authorities for personal data on all voters.
Poles resident abroad — who have the right to vote — will find it impossible to get mailed ballots on time, and lockdowns around the world will prevent them from dropping them off at Polish diplomatic missions.
With all that fuss, the Polish prosecutor’s office — run by powerful Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro — opened an investigation on Thursday to see if it would be dangerous to hold an election during the pandemic … and shut the probe down three hours later.
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
5. Don’t worry about the smoke and fire
A confident cook doesn’t worry about the occasional fire or smoke coming from the oven, and PiS is no exception.
Opposition parties and NGOs are raising protests about PiS’s actions, but the ruling party is shrugging them off — helped by feuding and bickering among opposition politicians who haven’t been able to create a united front against PiS.
Borys Budka, leader of the opposition Civic Platform, called the current election plans a “farce” being run by the government instead of independent agencies.
Deputy PM Sasin said there is “100 percent certainty” that the ballot will take place on May 10.
6. Don’t peek in the oven
Cooking demands concentration — so outsiders should stay out. The European Union has largely done just that.
It’s not that there aren’t protests, resolutions and debates in the European Parliament; European Commission infringement procedures; rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union; stern statements from the Council of Europe and Human Rights Watch. It’s just that five years of that hasn’t caused PiS and Kaczyński to back down in their efforts to politically control the courts and other institutions.
With the stakes so high in May’s election, there’s little chance of that changing now.
7. Borrowing a cup of sugar from a neighbor
Even if the EU did try to punish Poland, there’s little it can do.
Under the so-called Article 7 procedure, Poland could lose its voting rights in the European Council for backsliding on the bloc’s democratic rules. But that decision has to be taken unanimously by the remaining 26 member countries, and Hungary has made clear it will block any effort to sanction Poland. Warsaw is extending the same protection to Budapest, which faces similar problems from Brussels.
There are growing calls among net payer nations like France, Germany and the Netherlands to tie EU budget disbursements to obeying the rule of law, but Poland is a full EU member country and can block the budget, so such provision will be pretty difficult to put into place.
8. Dinner is served
Opposition presidential candidates have largely suspended their campaigns during the lockdown while Duda gets a huge amount of attention in the state-controlled media.
He’s shown as the concerned father of the nation, leading it through the tough times of the pandemic, and he’s being rewarded in opinion polls. A poll out Thursday had him romping home to an easy first-round victory with 59 percent support.