The Bishops of Poland are standing side on to the government’s proposal to hold a postal vote for presidential elections which legal scholars are warning would be a “gross and fundamental” violation of the country’s constitution should it go ahead.

– Concerns over voter confidentiality, the ballots of Poles abroad and a Constitutional Tribunal ruling

The first round of presidential elections in Poland is due for this Sunday, May 10, but due to the coronavirus pandemic the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party is pushing for the ballot to be held entirely by mail.

It’s a prospect opponents charge is illegal because legislation to change electoral procedure hasn’t been passed yet and won’t be until at least May 7, when a bill still before the Senate returns to the Lower House for final approval.

Detractors of the postal vote are also concerned about possible violations of voter confidentiality, about the fact that millions of Poles abroad could be forced to go without casting their ballot, and about a Constitutional Tribunal ruling that found that changes to the country’s electoral code can only be made at least six months out from a vote.

– Episcopate issues lukewarm call to compromise

In a statement April 28, the Polish Episcopal Conference stepped into the controversy to “appeal to the conscience of people responsible for the common good of the homeland, both those in power and the opposition to work out a common position on the presidential elections during this extraordinary situation”.

Refusing to take sides in the political dispute between government and opposition, the Polish Bishops urged parties to “seek solutions… that would not raise legal doubts and suspicion of not only violation of the constitutional order, but also of the principles of free and fair elections in a democratic society”.

“In this difficult situation, we should take care of the cultivation of democracy, defence of the rule of law and of building – despite differences – a culture of solidarity, including in the political sphere”, the Polish episcopate insisted, as it also called on politicians to safeguard “the lives and health of Poles”.

– Critics encourage boycott: “voting procedure” not even worthy of name “elections”

In contrast to the Polish episcopate’s lukewarm appeal to a compromise over the vote dilemma, Polish chairman of the European People’s Party and former President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, announced he would boycott the PiS “voting procedure” he said was unworthy of the name “elections”, since “they will not be free or equal” if they go ahead by mail and are “unconstitutional”.

Last week, too, a group of 425 legal academics from across Poland denounced that the PiS arrangements for a postal vote “violate in a gross and fundamental manner the principles of conducting elections, which stem from Poland’s constitution and international obligations”.

“We have no doubt that postponing the date is possible without violating the Polish constitution”, the legal scholars added.

Tusk and the Polish legal scholars thus added their voices to the chorus of disapproval over the PiS proposal, in which objections have also come from the Polish Supreme Court, the Association of Polish Cities and the Polish Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the European Commission and Parliament, the OSCE and Amnesty International.

Even the country’s own electoral commissioner, Sylwester Marciniak, has warned that “due to the legal and organisational conditions, it is not possible to hold elections on 10 May”.

“With everyone’s cooperation, elections could be held at a later date”, Marciniak said.

– Parishes solvent only for the next three months?

The dilemma over how to handle the presidential vote is just the latest headache for the Polish Bishops, who because of the coronavirus pandemic are now also facing a shortage of funds.

“The offertory is the key source of livelihood for every parish”, a parish priest from the central village of Warka told Rzeczpospolita.

“The offerings are used to pay all the parish bills and wages. For six Sundays we have been preaching to empty benches, and so there are no offerings coming in”, the cleric lamented.

“We now cover all expenses associated with the functioning of the parish from our savings. We will remain financially liquid for only the next three months, and I’m wondering what happens afterwards”, he added.

That Warka priest’s concerns were echoed by another cleric who runs a retreat centre in Ustrzyki Dolne, in the south of the country.

“We always have more money in the summer, when people come to the mountains for holidays. This year, however, we’re uncertain what will happen”, the retreat coordinator explained.

“But this year, the house is empty. The government says that tourism will restart soon, but it definitely won’t reach the same scale as before the pandemic”, he reflected.

Novena’s full coverage of the Church in Poland:

On coronavirus lockdowns, East European Catholics victims of communism warn: “We’ve experienced this before”

“Heretical” Polish archbishop downplays risk of COVID-19: “Christ does not spread germs and viruses”

From 350 faithful to one: empty Warsaw village parish Sunday Mass typical of churches around Poland as coronavirus bites

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.