Strasbourg, 29.06.2020 - Following the letters from the Polish authorities to the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), welcoming the presence of a PACE observation mission during the 2020 presidential election, an Assembly election assessment mission visited Warsaw from 26 to 29 June to observe the presidential election. During the visit, the members of the mission met the Head of the ODIHR Special Election Assessment Mission (SEAM), the experts of that mission and the Chairperson and officials of the National Electoral Commission. On election day, the members of the delegation observed the voting process in a limited number of polling stations in Warsaw and surrounding areas.
The Assembly’s assessment mission points out that the last time the Assembly had observed an election in Poland was in 1991 (for the parliamentary elections). On 28 January 2020, the Parliamentary Assembly decided to open a procedure to monitor Poland’s honouring of its statutory obligations vis-à-vis the Council of Europe. The observation of elections in a state subject to a monitoring procedure is an inalienable right of the Assembly.
Initially, the presidential election was scheduled to be held on 10 May. The authorities of Poland opted not to declare a State of Emergency but instituted a state of epidemiological emergency to deal with the pandemic and enacted a special law to hold the elections entirely by postal vote. In this regard, the Assembly’s Monitoring Committee co-rapporteurs for Poland issued a statement in which they welcomed the authorities’ wish to ensure the continuation of the democratic process but concluded that the appropriate conditions for holding democratic elections were not in place at that time. The co-rapporteurs therefore urged the authorities to postpone the elections until such time as genuine democratic elections could be held.
A new law providing for the possibility of voting either in polling stations or by post was passed on 2 June. Regrettably, the enactment process was not fully inclusive and participatory. The main political stakeholders agreed on the new date of 28 June for the presidential election.
The Assembly delegation is of the opinion that the legal framework for this election, held under emergency circumstances, should have been adopted through a public and inclusive process in order to avoid any political speculation on such sensitive issues. In this regard, the delegation commends the spirit of the recommendations made in the ODIHR Opinion on the Draft Act on Special Rules for the Organisation of the General Election of the President of the Republic of Poland. In particular, those recommendations sought to ensure that any amendments complied fully with the principles of legality and the rule of law.
The Assembly delegation recognises that it was a considerable challenge, from both a legal and a practical point of view, for all political stakeholders and the election administration of Poland to organise a presidential election during a pandemic. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission noted in its report on “Respect for democracy, human rights and the rule of law during states of emergency: reflections” that in order to guarantee elections satisfying the principles of universal, equal, free, secret and direct suffrage, it must be possible not only to vote, but also to have open and fair electoral campaigning. A genuine campaign and real public debate are just as important for democratic elections as the opportunity to vote.
The Assembly delegation was informed by the ODIHR SEAM that the election campaign had focused on a number of high-profile themes: the traditional family structure, social benefits, unemployment and economic issues in the aftermath of COVID-19. However, the campaign was characterised by negative campaigning, a polarised environment, inflammatory language, xenophobic and homophobic rhetoric and hate speech.
With regard to media coverage of the campaign, the ODIHR mission did not itself carry out any media monitoring but relied on comments from various Poles with whom they were in contact. The Assembly delegation was informed that the National Broadcasting Council had ensured neither impartial, balanced coverage nor effective oversight of the campaign.
Concerning the functioning of the election administration, the Assembly delegation was told that, despite the short time available, the National Electoral Commission had worked in a professional and transparent manner, meeting all legal deadlines and had enjoyed the trust of the main stakeholders. The National Electoral Commission informed the delegation that 11 candidates had been registered. Of the more than 30 million voters, 180,000 had opted for postal voting.
On 28 June, the Assembly delegation visited a limited number of polling stations in Warsaw and the surrounding area. Voting was well organised in the polling stations visited. The delegation noted the high motivation of citizens exercising their right to vote despite long queues and the health-protection measures in place. Members of polling stations fully co-operated with observers. All polling stations were well prepared, had the necessary protective equipment at their disposal and their members were well trained. The delegation noted that there needed to be greater observance of the principle of secrecy of the vote, as voters did not systematically fold their ballot papers, which made their votes visible, nor did they always make use of the booths.
The PACE delegation underlines the importance of co-operation between the relevant authorities of Poland and the Venice Commission, and in the context of the Assembly’s monitoring procedure.
The Assembly’s observation delegation was accompanied by legal experts from the Venice Commission.
Composition of the delegation:
Stefan SCHENNACH, Austria, Head of delegation
Yuliya LOVOCHKINA, Ukraine
Gerardo GIOVAGNOLI, San Marino
Reinhold LOPATKA, Austria