Participants carry Polish flags during a May Day demonstration in Warsaw, Poland, May 2020
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

In Poland, the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to reach its peak: the country is now under lockdown, with the infection curve still rising. As of May 10, 15,996 individuals had tested positive; of this number, 80 had died. But although the full dimensions of the threat to Polish public health remain to be seen, the threat to Polish democracy is already obvious. The country’s ruling party—the right-wing Law and Justice party (PiS)—is using the medical emergency to restrict civil rights and expand its own powers.

Public health measures have afforded the government numerous opportunities to bestow and deny political favors. In general, under the rule of the PiS, the Catholic Church has exercised extensive influence over public policy. Now, amid restrictions on public gatherings, religious groups are permitted to congregate in numbers that secular ones cannot. The PiS has long-standing conflicts with environmental activists over hunting and deforestation laws; now, quarantine law forbids all citizens except hunters from entering state parks and forests.

Party elites unapologetically exempt themselves from emergency prescriptions. April 10 marked the tenth anniversary of the fatal plane crash over Smolensk, which claimed former President Lech Kaczynski among its victims. The head of the PiS, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, led a commemorative ceremony with a dozen officials that broke many of his government’s pandemic laws. As Kaczynski and others laid flowers at a monument in midtown Warsaw, indignant passersby took pictures documenting the insufficient social distance they maintained. Many in the opposition saw the episode as emblematic of the party’s tactlessness. After all, families of COVID-19 victims cannot be present at their relatives’ deaths or pay them proper respect.

Some of the ruling party’s actions have stirred offense through their symbolism, but others may have implications that will long outlast the pandemic. During the shutdown, the PiS has promoted legislation that would diminish citizens’ personal autonomy and increase the influence of the PiS for years to come. Through a bungling postponement of this spring’s presidential election, the party is maneuvering to extend its executive power. For many Poles, these days of lockdown come with an eerie sense of déjà vu that portends an unstable future.

Quiet Streets, Radical Laws

Poland’s ruling party has taken advantage of the quarantine period to advance a conservative legislative agenda. Extreme right-wing activists have had several bills pending in Poland’s lower legislative chamber—some for months, some for almost three years—prior to the pandemic. One would allow minors to join hunting trips without their guardians’ permission. Another would render illegal abortions motivated by the discovery of birth defects, which are among the very few currently permitted under Polish law. A third bill would make providing sexual education to minors—including supplying information about contraception and sexual orientation—a crime punishable by prison. The three bills had been due for parliamentary discussion for a long time, but the PiS has put them on the schedule only now.

The abortion bill is a slightly milder version of the total ban on abortion that the Polish parliament debated in 2018. At that time, thousands of Polish women staged public protests to defend abortion rights. Their “black marches”—named after the color the protesters wore—drew international attention. The government relented to public pressure and did not support the 2018 bill. Now, a similar provision has come before parliament while shelter-in-place orders forbid public gatherings, timing that the PiS claims is coincidental. As the bill came to a first vote on April 15, some protesters still managed to queue up in the streets, standing six feet apart to respect the social-distancing regulations.

The three controversial bills have all been tabled for discussion and revision in smaller parliamentary committees until an unspecified later date. In the past, this tactic has occasionally been deployed to do away with inconvenient proposals by putting them in limbo, since parliamentary committees can indefinitely postpone such discussions. But the opposition believes that this time, the government is merely biding its time and still fully intends to advance the bills.

Election, Interrupted

Under ordinary circumstances, this month would be election season in Poland. The PiS-backed president, Andrzej Duda, was to face challengers from right, left, and center—including the candidate backed by the centrist Civic Platform party (PO), Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, who would become Poland’s first female president if elected. And indeed, an election technically took place on May 10, but no actual votes were cast and the procedure is now due to be voided and rescheduled.

How Poland got to this stalemate makes for a long and convoluted tale. In early April, the opposition suggested that the election be postponed until the fall or until May of next year. But the PiS demurred, offering two alternative solutions. The first was to hold the election on time, but by correspondence. The postal service would collect the ballots from each citizen’s mailbox. Independent observers, including the national ombudsperson Adam Bodnar, protested this solution. Many mailboxes are not secure enough to prevent ballot theft. Postal service staff could alter or throw out ballots while collecting them. And even if no one acted maliciously, the procedure was untested and susceptible to error on the parts of both the post office workers and the officials whose job it would be to count the votes under new circumstances. Although Americans may see voting by mail as a means of enfranchisement under pandemic conditions, Poles place too little trust in their state bureaucracy to foster similar hopes. Indeed, in a mid-April survey, more than 60 percent of respondents opposed voting by mail and only 23 percent favored it.

With correspondence voting under criticism, the PiS proposed a second solution: extending the president's term from five to seven years, with no possibility of reelection. The PiS put forward a bill to this effect and justified it as a public health measure that would ensure that the pandemic had fully abated before another presidential election would be needed. But such a measure would require changing the constitution, which calls for a two-thirds parliamentary majority that the PiS could not procure. The half measure on which it consequently settled was perhaps the least legally sound of all: the government neither called off the May 10 presidential election nor took steps to conduct it. Instead, it has put pressure on the Polish Supreme Court to void the election retroactively. When Poland’s election will be held and whether it will be by mail or in person has yet to be announced; it is most likely to be a “hybrid” and to take place sometime during the summer. Meanwhile, Duda remains in office.

Déjà Vu

Poland’s ruling party has been at odds with democratic norms and with the EU since long before COVID-19 appeared. During the pandemic, even preexisting tensions have come to a head. The PiS has tried for several years, for instance, to replace Supreme Court judges who don’t agree with the party’s political views. Brussels officially condemned these efforts in late 2019. But when the Venice Commission sent a delegation to Warsaw to discuss the situation in mid-January 2020, the Polish government refused to see it. Now, the EU is threatening to bring the matter before its supreme judicial body, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

For older Poles, the political maneuvering amid a national lockdown has a peculiar resonance. They recall the months-long martial law that Poland’s declining Communist Party imposed in the early 1980s. And although the comparison is in many ways overdrawn, the frequency with which it is voiced speaks to the Polish public’s sense of the historic weight of the present moment.

The pandemic has sharpened Poland’s internal divisions. The PiS is tightening its political grip, and the opposition has responded with increasing vehemence—all while a health crisis gains ground and an economic one looms. The winner of this contest may well prevail by undemocratic means—in which case it will inherit a deeply wounded country.