WARSAW – Uncertainty over whether Poland will hold a postal presidential election during the coronavirus pandemic deepened Monday after a deputy prime minister resigned, leaving the ruling party without enough votes to approve an exclusively mail-in ballot.
It was unclear how the authorities would resolve the problem of how to hold an election that had been scheduled for May — before the pandemic hit. Accelerating infections and a strict lockdown in Poland make it impossible to allow people to gather at polling stations.
Jaroslaw Gowin, deputy prime minister and minister for science and higher education, resigned after he failed to persuade the powerful ruling party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to postpone the election by two years. Gowin said it was irresponsible to hold a vote at a time when the country is fighting the pandemic and the economic problems it has wrought.
There had been speculation that the government could collapse if Gowin did not win support for his proposal because he is also the leader of a grouping that belongs to the conservative ruling coalition led by Law and Justice.
The ruling coalition, however, remained intact. Gowin said his group, with 18 lawmakers in the 460-seat lower house of parliament that ensure the ruling party's majority in votes, was not withdrawing its support for the government.
Nonetheless, the government was at an impasse over what to do next.
Parliament was scheduled first on Friday, then Monday, to vote on Kaczynski's proposal to make the May 10 election exclusively a postal vote. The proposal has now been postponed both times.
The latest postponement came when it was clear that Law and Justice did not have the majority in the lower house to pass the legislation. Gowin and several other lawmakers either voted against or abstained from supporting a measure that would have put a vote on postal voting on Monday's agenda.
Conservative President Andrzej Duda is seeking a second five-year term, and is far ahead of all rivals in opinion polls. He has indicated that he is open to postponing the vote. But Law and Justice — which supports Duda — has been seeking a way to hold the election despite the pandemic.
Law and Justice officials insist that the current election timeline — voting on May 10 with a runoff on May 24 if no candidate has won 50% — is dictated by the constitution and should not be changed.
Party leaders hope Duda's reelection would help them consolidate power at a time of crisis. Many feel that if Duda were to face a vote in a few months, when the economic pain of the strict government-ordered lockdown is more painfully felt, he would be less likely to win.
The main opposition party, Civic Platform, has been calling for the government to declare a state of emergency that would trigger an automatic postponement of the election.
Opposition lawmakers say holding an election during the pandemic would be undemocratic because opposition candidates cannot travel across the nation of 38 million people to campaign due to the lockdown. Duda, meanwhile, still profits from heavy coverage on state media.
Poland so far has over 4,200 infections and 98 deaths from the coronavirus, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned Monday that the numbers would likely peak in May or June.
There have also been questions about whether the postal service, which is already struggling, is prepared to handle ballots from 30 million registered voters. One union leader said other authorities, including the army, might have to help. Meanwhile, some postal workers have expressed worries about getting infected handling mail-in ballots.
In preparation for a possible postal vote in May, Kaczynski last week appointed the deputy defense minister to be the new head of the postal service.
Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed.