The opposition controlled second chamber of Poland’s Parliament, the Senate, has delayed its deliberations on the electoral code legislation passed by the Lower House on May 11. The legislation will now be considered in a full session of the Senate no earlier than next week.
The Speaker of the Senate Tomasz Grodzki has said that the more Senators examine the legislation the more doubts develop about whether it is constitutional. A former Ombudsman Professor Ewa Łętowska has argued that the constitution does not envisage a situation in which a Presidential election cannot take place (as it failed to do on May 10) and only allows the Speaker of the Lower Hose to call a presidential election if the office of President has been vacated.
The legislation before the Senate enables the election to be held in polling stations with the right of voters to apply for a postal ballot. It also enables the Speaker of the Lower House to determine how many days candidates would have to collect the required signatures of support.
Opposition looking to delay the election again
Deputy Speaker Michał Kamiński from the Polish People’s Party (PSL) said that according to the constitution the election should therefore be held after the term of office of the incumbent expired on August 6. Another deputy speaker from the Left Gabriela Morawska-Stanecka is reported to have filed an amendment to the legislation which would delay its implementations until August 6. If approved and then accepted by the Lower House it would mean that the Speaker of the Lower House could only begin the election process on August 6, meaning that the election itself could not be held before September.
Meanwhile, the leader of the Civic Platform (PO) Borys Budka accused the Speaker of the Lower House Elżbieta Witek of having acted unconstitutionally by not calling an election by May 24. According to Mr Budka the constitution obliges the Speaker of the Lower House to call an election within 14 days of the failure of a presidential election to take place.
Speaker Witek accuses Speaker Grodzki of dishonesty
Elżbieta Witek has expressed her irritation with the delay in the Senate. She said that she had been assured by the Senate Speaker Tomasz Grodzki that the second chamber would expedite the legislation promptly.
She recalled the fact that when the election on postal ballots was passed in time for it to apply for the May 10 election that did not take place, the Senate took the full 30 days it had to simply reject it without any attempts to amend it. This, argues Speaker Witek, was to give the opposition PO a chance of changing its presidential candidate (as indeed it later did by dropping Ms Kidawa-Błońska for Warsaw mayor Rafał Traskowski).
Speaker Witek argued that she cannot name the date of the election until the legislation is approved as only then will she be able to set the timetable for gathering signatures of support and for the State Electoral Commission (PKW) to organise the poll. Ruling party sources accused the opposition of ratting on an agreement that had been reached on the elections proceeding quickly. The Speaker herself pointed to the fact that the ruling party had compromised with the opposition when it allowed voting in polling stations and not only, as had been recommended by the health minister, by post.
The ruling party are annoyed with the opposition over the latest U-turn on the date but insist that the election will be held in time for the President to be in place by early August. Speaker Witek said that it would be totally unconstitutional to allow a situation in which the office of President became vacant.
Why the move for delay?
The opposition feels that it is in its interests to spin out the election contest for as long as possible. It also wants to cause the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) maximum embarrassment over the fact that the election has been delayed.
However, there may also be another factor in play. According to Professor Łętowska the constitution only envisages the Speaker of the Lower House deputising as head of state if the office of President has been vacated by death or resignation. In all other circumstances the constitution actually envisages that it is the Speaker of the Senate who assumes the responsibility for acting as head of state.
The ruling party is almost certain to reject any Senate amendment to delay the election. The poll is likely therefore to take place and be completed by the middle of July. However, the opposition will have prepared grounds for appeal about the validity of the election should it lose the election. It will go to the Supreme Court arguing the Speaker has acted in violation of the constitution and would also be likely to complain to international bodies.
The opposition is hinting that the ruling party could avoid such a scenario by either the President resigning so the office becomes vacant now, or by a government introduction of a state of emergency. But the governing party does not wish to lose the advantage of the president being in office during the election campaign nor does it want a state of emergency that would spin out the election for weeks on end.
However, some sources in the PO as well as the independent candidate Szymon Hołownia are critical of such moves in the Senate. Sławomir Nitras, a prominent PO MP said he had doubts about Professor Łętowska’s interpretation of the constitution. Mr Hołownia on the other hand said that the voters were tired of the wrangling about the election date and wanted resolution.