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Polish parliament approves election only by postal vote

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Polish lawmakers voted late Monday to conduct the country’s forthcoming presidential elections exclusively through postal voting due to the lockdown imposed for the coronavirus pandemic.

Parliament also empowered house speaker Elzbieta Witek to push back the date of the election, if necessary. Both decisions by parliament require approval from the Senate and from President Andrzej Duda, who is seeking reelection.

Time was pressing for a decision on whether and how to hold the election that had been scheduled — before the pandemic hit — for May 10. Accelerating infections and strict containment measures would make it impossible for people to vote as usual, at polling stations.

There was a brief impasse earlier Monday when Jaroslaw Gowin, the deputy prime minister, resigned after he failed to persuade the powerful ruling party leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, to postpone the election by two years. Gowin said it was irresponsible to hold a vote at a time when the country is fighting the pandemic and the economic problems it has wrought.

The ruling conservative coalition remained intact and was eventually able to secure parliamentary approval later in the day for a debate and a vote on postal balloting.

Gowin said his group, with 18 lawmakers in the 460-seat lower house of parliament that ensure the ruling party’s majority in votes, was not withdrawing its support for the government.

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Duda, a conservative, is seeking a second five-year term, and is far ahead of all rivals in opinion polls. He has indicated that he is open to postponing the vote if the pandemic continues. But the governing Law and Justice party — which supports Duda — has been seeking a way to hold the election despite the pandemic.

Law and Justice officials insist that the current election timeline — with a runoff on May 24 if no candidate has won 50% — is dictated by the constitution and should not be changed. But it is not certain whether mail-in balloting could be ready by then.

Party leaders hope Duda’s reelection would help them consolidate power at a time of crisis. Many feel that if Duda were to face a vote in a few months, when the economic pain of the strict government-ordered lockdown is more acutely felt, he would be less likely to win.

The main opposition party, Civic Platform, has been calling for the government to declare a state of emergency that would trigger an automatic postponement of the election.

Opposition lawmakers say holding an election during the pandemic would be undemocratic because opposition candidates cannot travel across the nation of 38 million people to campaign due to the lockdown. Duda, meanwhile, still profits from heavy coverage on state media.

Poland so far has over 4,400 infections and 107 deaths from the coronavirus, and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki warned Monday that the numbers would likely peak in May or June.

There have also been questions about whether the postal service, which is already struggling, is prepared to handle ballots from 30 million registered voters. One union leader said other authorities, including the army, might have to help. Meanwhile, some postal workers have expressed worries about getting infected handling mail-in ballots.

In preparation for a possible postal vote in May, Kaczynski last week appointed the deputy defense minister to be the new head of the postal service.