This late-minute change to the electoral code, introduced in the middle of the night, was added to a bill that was meant to help companies and employees during the coronavirus pandemic.
10 minutes for 79 pages of amendments
"We have just received 79 pages of amendments , we see a large number of them for the first time. We have 10 minutes to determine how we vote, because voting starts at 3am. What do these amendments contain? PiS tinkering with the elections, changes the composition of the Social Dialogue Council]. It was supposed to be an anti-crisis law, it ended up being just a typical Law and Justice legislation," the Left Coalition MP Marcelina Zawisza wrote on Twitter at 3 am.
The provision regarding elections concerns Art. 53a of the Electoral Code and reads as follows: "a) after par. 1, par. 1a is added:
The voter can also vote by mail if he or she is:
1) subject to compulsory quarantine, isolation or isolation at home on the day of voting, referred to in the Act of 5 December 2008 on preventing and combating infections and infectious diseases in humans;
2) at least 60 years old on the election day."
Another provision in the amendment provides that voting-by-mail will not be allowed for Poles living abroad, and those on ships. At the same time, voters over 60 years old will be able to choose voting by proxy instead of voting-by-mail (similar rules currently apply to people with disabilities). To vote by mail, you will have to report it to the election commissioner up to 15 days before the election, unless you are under quarantine, in which case the deadline is 5 days before the election.
Details of voting-by-mail are to be determined by the Minister of Infrastructure (responsible for post offices) after consulting the Minister of Internal Affairs and Administration, the Minister of health, and the National Electoral Commission.
Lasek (Civic Coalition): PiS act like night-robbers
"Six weeks before the election, #PiS changes the electoral code. Using the #coronavirus pandemic in Poland. Under the cover of night. Like robbers "- a Civic Coalition MP Maciej Lasek commented on Twitter. "This is a change to the Electoral Code, i.e. it should be done according to a different, more elaborate procedure" - added another Civic Coalition MP Sławomir Nitras.
During the vote, MP Sławomir Neumann protested against the amendment to the electoral code. Speaker of the Sejm, Law and Justice’s Elżbieta Witek accused him of "violating the gravity of the Sejm" and appealed to him "to behave with dignity in this room." She finally issued him an official warning.
In the past, the Constitutional Tribunal has twice ruled that no changes may be made to electoral codes later than six months before voting. The former president of the Constitutional Tribunal Jerzy Stępień also emphasized that the code of morality of the electoral law adopted by the Council of Europe stipulates that no changes should take place within about eight months prior to an election. PiS introduced its changes 42 days before the election date, which - despite the pandemic - the ruling camp insists remain valid.
Law and Justice pushes for the presidential election to take place on May 10 - Jaroslaw Kaczynski announced in a recent interview with RMF radio broadcast. Experts have no illusions: democratic elections cannot be held during an epidemic. At the moment, for example, more than 150,000 people are in quarantine.
This brought forward the sudden change of the Electoral Code by the ruling party, although no one from PiS alluded to any such intentions before proposing the amendments. The key element is the provision allowing voting-by-mail for people over 60 years of age. Older voters are one of the main bases of support for the Kaczyński party, but at the same time they belong to the demographic which is most at risk to suffer from severe effects of coronavirus. Despite the epidemic, the government did not withdraw from paying the special, one-off additional retirement pension in April.
Everything points to the fact that it was the governing party’s intention to change the electoral law for a long time. On Thursday, during a session of the Sejm, the ruling camp rejected the amendment of the Civic Coalition which would make it impossible for the chamber to amend either the constitution or the Electoral Code during Sejm sessions which take place remotely. On Friday, the first such session took place, with MPs participating using a special software. The proceedings will continue to take place online until at least June 30th.
PiS previously restricted voting-by-mail
This is not the first time Law and Justice is poking around the Electoral Code. In 2018, the party wanted to abolish voting-by-mail altogether, but after protests the party decided to retain the provision that only people living in Poland with a disability certificate could vote using this method.
In the early morning hours this Saturday, the Sejm voted in favour of the “anti-crisis shield” bill, including the amendments to the electoral code. Both the Law and Justice and almost the entire Civic Coalition (nine deputies abstained) voted yes.
"I understand that some are disappointed that due to the Electoral Law amendment we did not vote against the whole bill. However, please consider the alternative scenario in which the largest opposition party rejects a stimulus bill during a crisis of the current magnitude" - a Civic Coalition MP Paweł Kowal argued on Twitter.
The Left coalition and PSL-Kukiz'15 (agrarians) were against the bill, considering that the measures proposed by the government were insufficient to combat the crisis, while the amendment of the Electoral Law posed a huge epidemiological threat by making the May 10 election more likely. The far-right Confederation abstained.
PiS MEP Joachim Brudzinski, the chief of Andrzej Duda's campaign team, explained on Saturday on Twitter: "In a situation that Electoral Code did not anticipate, one regarding the effects of the epidemic, such as the quarantine, and the health hazards concerning the elderly, we actually extended civil rights. I want to emphasise that: we did not limit voting rights, we did not make anything difficult, we did not take away any rights, quite the opposite. And the opposition is against it just for the sake of being against it”.
On Monday, the bill will move to the Senate, in which the opposition has a narrow majority of 51 to 49. Even if the Upper House introduces some changes to the special law (it has a maximum of 30 days to accept, amend, or reject the bill), the Sejm may override any decision of the Senate by absolute majority.
While the “anti-crisis shield” bill was being elaborated by the government, the Law and Justice was considering introducing other rather shocking changes in various legal codes, e.g. allow prosecutors to decide on placing someone under house arrest without the court’s approval. Eventually, the ruling camp withdrew from this and other amendments, focusing its attention of the Electoral Code instead.
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