WARSAW — Polish President Andrzej Duda isn’t putting much social distance between himself and his potential voters.
Duda has been on a tear around the country in recent days, visiting a hospital, a border post and a factory owned by state-controlled refiner PKN Orlen that is now being used to produce hand sanitizer.
The president’s office says this is all part of the job of a head of state in a country in crisis thanks to the coronavirus epidemic, but Duda’s rivals accuse him of conducting an unfair political campaign ahead of presidential elections scheduled for May 10.
Opposition presidential candidates have called off rallies and one, the independent Szymon Hołownia, has suspended his campaign. Poland’s tough coronavirus restrictions, which ban public gatherings of more than 50 people, make it almost impossible to conduct normal politics.
But for now, Duda has no plans to stop.
If Duda can push his vote total above 50 percent, he could win in the first round instead of having to fight it out with the runner-up in a second round on May 24
“The elections will take place on May 10,” Błażej Spychalski, the head of the president’s Cabinet, told Polish radio on Wednesday.
Duda, who won his first term five years ago with the support of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, is far ahead in opinion polls. A survey out this week had him at 46.4 percent, well ahead of his nearest rival, Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska of the centrist Civic Coalition, with 20.4 percent. The other four official candidates were even further back.
If Duda can push his vote total above 50 percent, he could win in the first round instead of having to fight it out with the runner-up in a second round on May 24 — and his supporters are urging him to hang on.
“President Duda is ever closer to a first-round victory,” tweeted Beata Mazurek, a PiS member of the European Parliament. “For many reasons it would be a very sensible and practical solution. In that way many potential implications could be avoided.”
But the opposition is crying foul.
“There is no presidential campaign and the election is approaching,” said Robert Biedroń, a left-wing presidential candidate. “The president is in a privileged position,” he said, adding, “Today, elections wouldn’t be fair.”
Opposition parties complain that even though campaign rallies have been suspended, Duda is getting a lot of coverage as he travels around the country checking on coronavirus preparations and making headline-grabbing announcements of government programs. On Wednesday, he and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki made a joint announcement of an “anti-coronavirus shield” worth 212 billion złoty (€47 billion) in economic aid to help with the consequences of the pandemic.
Duda is also getting an enormous boost from state-controlled media, which has become a propaganda arm of the ruling party. In February, state television devoted 17 hours of airtime to Duda (both as candidate and as president), 30 minutes to Kidawa-Błońska, and 44 seconds to Biedroń.
“Today, President Andrzej Duda should be a responsible politician and give a good example, instead of traveling around on visits which have nothing to do with his presidential responsibilities,” Borys Budka, the leader of the Civic Coalition, told reporters on Wednesday. “Today, President Andrzej Duda is the only one engaged in an election campaign.”
He called on Morawiecki to declare a national emergency so that the election can be delayed. Under Polish law, an election would be shifted to no earlier than 90 days after such an emergency expires; however, the government hasn’t yet made any such declaration. Morawiecki cautioned Wednesday that putting off the vote until the fall could mean that the election would happen during a second wave of the cornavirus.
Other presidential candidates also want a delay, and there’s an online petition calling for a change in dates.
Poland’s health service is also underfunded and understaffed. Many doctors and nurses left to work in Western Europe in recent years, and the country spends only 6.5 percent of its GDP on health care
Duda’s backers aren’t giving an inch. Ryszard Terlecki, the deputy speaker of parliament, tweeted that the opposition were “losers” for calling for a new election date. “Poles won’t choose them either in May or at any other time,” he added.
But Duda is taking a risk.
For now he’s riding a wave of support as worried Poles turn to the government for help during scary times. But if the pandemic gets much worse, opinion could shift. As of Wednesday, Poland had 282 coronavirus cases and five deaths.
However, those numbers are almost certainly a wild understatement as Poland has low testing rates — only 7,899 tests had been conducted as of Wednesday, far fewer than in other big EU nations such as Spain and Germany. Those who do manage to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and get tested complain of long lines and delays.
Poland’s health service is also underfunded and understaffed. Many doctors and nurses left to work in Western Europe in recent years, and the country spends only 6.5 percent of its GDP on health care, one of the lowest rates in the EU. That means if Poland is hit with a wave of illnesses, hospitals may not be able to cope.
There are already warning signs.
Bernadeta Krynicka, a former PiS MP and nurse who now works for a hospital in Łomża in eastern Poland, complained this week that plans to change the hospital into an infectious disease unit were flawed. “There is no individual gear, no equipment, respirators, pumps,” she said in a Facebook post. “I hope that this infectious disease hospital won’t happen.”
In response she was suspended as a member of Law and Justice.
“The state is doing everything possible to ensure that the elections takes place on time and in safety.” — Elżbieta Witek, PiS speaker of parliament
There’s also the issue of organizing elections if the date isn’t changed, which involves about 250,000 people who have to be trained — usually in large groups — and prepared to man voting stations and count ballots.
But Elżbieta Witek, the PiS speaker of parliament who is responsible for setting the date of the vote, said Wednesday, “There are no plans to move the presidential election to a different date; the date of May 10 is not endangered. The state is doing everything possible to ensure that the elections takes place on time and in safety.”