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Poland: PACE pre-electoral delegation notes a heated and polarised campaign environment

Observation of lections in Poland

A pre-electoral delegation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, concluding a visit to Poland (26-27 September 2023), has noted a heated and polarised campaign environment in the run-up to next month’s parliamentary elections. The delegation listened to widespread concerns about potential democratic backsliding, threatening to undermine public trust in the fairness of the electoral process.

The five-member[1] cross-party delegation, led by Mireille Clapot (France, ALDE), conducted its assessment in Warsaw, engaging with high-ranking state officials, members of the judiciary, election authorities, political party representatives, civil society organisations and independent media monitors, as well as representatives of the diplomatic corps.

The delegation highlighted concerns surrounding the simultaneous referendum during the parliamentary elections, which various interlocutors suggested was intended to circumvent campaign financing regulations. The delegation was also worried that the wording of the referendum questions pre-empted the answers and felt that the obligation for voters to actively refuse to take the referendum ballot paper might endanger the secrecy of the vote for those wanting to participate in the elections but not in the referendum.

Furthermore, the delegation expressed concerns about the legitimacy of key courts being questioned domestically and internationally, as well as the European Court of Human Rights no longer recognising the Chamber of Extraordinary Review and Public Affairs of the Polish Supreme Court as a legally established tribunal. These factors could lead to uncertainty if the election results were to be challenged.

The members of the pre-electoral mission were informed about several amendments to the Electoral Code introduced during a period of legislative silence, including a switch to a central voter register without large-scale testing prior to the elections. Moreover, they expressed their disappointment at the Parliament’s failure to adjust the number of seats in constituencies to reflect changing population levels, as mandated by law and proposed by the State Electoral Commission. However, the delegation was pleased to note that there was a high level of trust in the ability of local election officials to carry out their roles.

The delegation noted with satisfaction that candidates’ freedom to campaign remains unhampered in Poland, but echoed the concerns of certain interlocutors about unbalanced media coverage by public outlets.

The delegation also took note of concerns raised about the blurring of the line between state and party activities by political parties and the transparency of campaign financing.

The voting process for Polish citizens residing abroad was also an issue raised by some of the delegation’s interlocutors, particularly the changes to legal provisions which might invalidate out-of-country precinct votes if they are not received by the National Election Commission within 24 hours of polls closing.

The delegation acknowledges that addressing some of these issues before election day may be challenging, but it strongly urges action on those that can still be rectified.

A fully-fledged PACE delegation comprising 30 members, accompanied by legal experts from the Venice Commission, will travel to Poland to observe the vote on 15 October.

PACE – which represents parliamentarians from 46 European nations – is observing elections in Poland with a full-scale delegation for the first time since the Parliamentary Assembly decided to open a procedure in January 2020 to monitor Poland’s honouring of its statutory obligations vis-à-vis the Council of Europe.

[1] Composition of the delegation: Mireille Clapot (France, ALDE), head of delegation, Stefan Schennach (Austria (SOC), Corneliu Mugurel Cozmanciuc (Romania, EPP/CD), Lord Simon Russell (United Kingdom, EC/DA) and Andrej Hunko (Germany, UEL).