Wojciech Ufel is a PhD student at University of Wrocław, Poland; working on democratic theory and the philosophy of language. He is co-author of an upcoming book, ‘Between Fair and Rigged: Elections as a Key Determinant of the ‘Borderline Political Regime’’, which analyses electoral malpractices in Turkey, Central Europe and South America.
The now infamous essay by Giorgio Agamben, circulated in late February, started what was perhaps the first major philosophical debate on the COVID-19 virus. Although Agamben’s obvious negation of the pandemic scale of the virus attracted a lot of well-deserved scepticism to his claims, what he saw as symptoms of the ‘tendency to use a state of exception as a normal paradigm for government’ is not entirely incorrect. While the current public health and economic situation indeed requires exceptional interventions to maintain at least parts of social and economic orders—whether it is for noble or corrupt cases, it is not for me to say—some states are doing much more than that. There is a peculiar group of governments, operating within a spectrum of democratic institutions, yet bending and abusing their rules, in order to secure their incumbency and vastly enlarge their influence. Many terms coined to describe this phenomenon, such as ‘state capture’, ‘poligarchy’, ‘mafia state’ or ‘illiberal democracy’ etc., catch its essence pretty well. Therefore it is not a surprise that in those countries the COVID-19 crisis is indeed used in a way described by Agamben—to introduce the state of exception and then aim at normalizing that paradigm of governing. However, there is one peculiar case where the exact opposite is happening: in Poland everything is exceptional yet authorities claim that we shall operate as if everything was normal.
The cause for such a turn of events is simple: Presidential Elections scheduled for May 10th. They are a closure of a cycle that started in 2015 and led to (for now at least) five consecutive electoral wins for the Law and Justice (PiS) party. The incumbent president is very popular among the right-wing conservative base but their support is very dependent on social policies of government, economic growth and massive propaganda from both public and private media. Despite fuelling public TV with 2 billion PLN (approx. 500M Euro) two months ago, corruption, nepotism and cynicism of the ruling party makes this support extremely contingent, mostly on economic prosperity. The upcoming crisis is most likely to crush the government ratings which make it perhaps the last moment to secure the presidency for the next 5 years. Otherwise, a president coming from an opposing party would start a difficult period of cohabitation, being able to effectively block any bill proposed by the government and parliamentarian majority; and their capturing of state institutions (both economic and judiciary) and curtailing of opposing media and NGOs is not over yet…
What does it have to do with Agamben’s claim? The key element in this political game is that introducing the state of exception would postpone elections by at least 3 months, probably more. Therefore the government is doing everything to avoid that measure claiming that the situation is not at all that extreme. In the meantime, numerous measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus, similar to those in other European countries, has been undertaken: schools, shops and restaurants have been closed down; high fines are given for those who go outside for ‘unnecessary’ reasons; the freedom of assembly (including protest) in public has effectively been eradicated. There is no possibility of traditional canvassing for anyone except the incumbent in office. A lockdown as severe as this one cannot be legally implemented without calling for a state of exception. However, the government acts as if everything were normal, pushing for elections, not only knowing that it might be a last chance for them to win, but also making sure that the playing field is not level for everyone.
This political coup d’état has been staged (for now) in two steps that started towards the end of March. The first one was to organize a session of the parliament in a very limited way: only a small fraction of the MPs were allowed to personally attend the session while the rest have been online, with no possibility to speak up and voting only through an app—a lousy one at that. These conditions were implemented only to vote for necessary anti-crisis economic set of measures, but in the middle of the night an extraordinary amendment to a legal code—only 42 days before elections!—was embedded into this very package. It allowed mail voting for elderly (which is the segment of most loyal PiS supporters) and those in quarantine or isolation. After a heated criticism of this proposition and a threat from local authorities and activists to withdraw from organizing local Electoral Committees, a new measure—which is now under consideration of the Senate—was proposed. It makes mail voting compulsory for all 30 million voters , including millions of Poles living abroad. Moreover, elections would not be organized by the State Electoral Committee but by Polish Mail, a state-owned company which has just been taken over by the former deputy Minister of Defence. The bill is expected to be turned into law at the start of May providing the authorities just a few days to organize safe, free, lawful and fair elections in a manner that has never been even considered in Poland at all. Meanwhile, despite lacking any legal basis, the Minister of State Resources and Coordinator of Special Services are already preparing the postal vote; as the Post Office illegally tried to acquire respective voters’ registries. Some local authorities have resisted, deepening the chaos amidst preparations.
It is clear that conducting fair elections in these conditions is impossible. And it is obvious that if the vote actually takes place, there might only be one outcome, and it is a landslide win for a current incumbent. With the right to assembly temporarily (?) suspended, no outdoor protest is possible and no legal bodies—Supreme or Constitutional Courts, filled with PiS loyalists—would react, as they were the first targets of a state capture that has been going on in Poland for the last five years. It seems that the only force capable of stopping this lunacy can come from inside the ruling coalition.
Indeed, this is happening. Jarosław Gowin, leader of Agreement (one of two minor coalition parties alongside PiS), has officially opposed May elections, and consequently resigned from his post as a Deputy Prime Minister. Despite this, for now his party continues to support other government policies; though they are in open negotiations with the opposition. Poland Together may end up blocking the election-by-postal-vote at the last minute; or even reclaiming a more permanent majority in Sejm (Poland’s primary legislative chamber). Nevertheless the formation of a new government is not that straightforward. It would require joint support from a broad range of parties: from libertarian and nationalist far-right groups through to conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and the populist, left-wing party Razem. If anything the COVID-19 crisis may only deepen the policy malaise represented by current government and further damage the current opposition.
For now, it is impossible to say whether this political turmoil will eventually end with elections: postal or otherwise. There are frictions within the ruling coalition and whilst some members of government claim that elections in May are inconceivable, their departure from the coalition might be made up through acquiring support of some opposition MPs by offering them sinecures. It may also be that voting plans are designed only to further perplex and divide opposition and the public, taking their focus away from the mediocre policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The strategies of several major players (who want to secure their influence not only during, but also after the COVID-19 crisis) still remain obscure.
In any case, the pandemic has given the ruling party a chance to employ biopolitics in order to grab more power, and it intends to take it. Just like in Agamben’s argument, though this time due to constitutional circumstances, measures are employed the other way round: PiS is normalizing the state of exception through an exceptionalization of the state of normality.
- While voting in general is not compulsory, the new measure seems to oblige all citizens to at least return their voting cards if they are not interested. However, it just is a poorly written law making it difficult to assess all of its consequences.