WARSAW (Reuters) - The Polish Senate on Tuesday rejected a government proposal to conduct a presidential election scheduled for May 10 as a postal ballot because of the coronavirus pandemic, in a widely anticipated hurdle for the ruling nationalists.
The Law and Justice (PiS) government has argued an election could be held safely despite a rising number of deaths from the COVID-19 disease caused by the highly contagious novel coronavirus if it is done by post instead of in-person at voting booths.
But opposition parties, which control the Senate, said mail-in ballots would not mitigate health risks or concerns over election fairness.
The final say rests with the lower house of Parliament, the Sejm, where PiS holds a fragile majority. The Sejm is scheduled to vote on the draft law later this week.
The election date has become highly contentious, with government critics accusing PiS of putting its own political gain ahead of public health. Opposition parties have said the vote should be postponed by months.
PiS has refused to budge, however, with opinion polls showing the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, an ally the party needs to push through its conservative agenda, likely to win by a landslide if the election is held soon.
Critics say that only Duda was effectively able to campaign ahead of the election, with other candidates constrained by restrictions on public life imposed by the government to contain the spread of the virus.
They also argue that a substantial change of voting rules - postal ballots are allowed in Poland only in rare circumstances - so close to an election date makes it impossible to ensure proper monitoring and access for all eligible voters.
“This law will change the system and I am afraid it will bring us closer to authoritarian rule,” Bogdan Borusewicz, a senior senator from the centrist Civic Platform, said during a debate before the vote.
PiS has signalled it will seek to postpone the election until May 17 or May 23 to better prepare for the election if the new voting rules are approved. Its legislative proposal envisages the possibility of a small shift in an election schedule, normally banned under Polish law.
It may still lose the vote later this week, with some members of its conservative parliamentary coalition expressing opposition to postal voting this month because of health concerns due to the pandemic. That could plunge Poland into political turmoil at a time when a decisive response is needed to prop up a teetering economy.
The PiS-nominated Parliament speaker, Elzbieta Witek, said on Tuesday she would ask the Constitutional Tribunal whether she can postpone the election, signalling the party’s preferred course of action if the postal vote is rejected.
“Tomorrow morning I am submitting a motion to the Constitutional Tribunal in which I want to ask whether it will be contrary to or consistent with the constitution if I postpone the election date,” Witek said.
The tribunal - a judicial body established to resolve disputes on the constitutionality of the activities of state institutions - is headed by Julia Przylebska, described by PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski as a close friend.
Changes to the tribunal are among several reforms of the justice system introduced by PiS since it came to power in 2015, which have been criticised by the European Union as subverting democratic norms.
Reporting by Anna Koper and Agnieszka Barteczko; Additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska; Writing by Marcin Goclowski; editing by Timothy Heritage, Justyna Pawlak and Leslie Adler