Poland Election Tests Democracy in a Pandemic

Voters must bring their own pens. Masks are required for anyone entering a polling station in Warsaw and other Polish cities. Doors should remain open so people do not have to touch the handles. And voters will be given a zone of personal space three feet in all directions.

These are just a few of the measures that have been put in place in Poland to ensure people can safely vote in Europe’s first presidential election since the coronavirus pandemic swept across the continent.

The election was delayed from May and polls last week suggested that no clear winner was likely to emerge with more than 50 percent of the vote, which would force a runoff election in two weeks.

Nearly a dozen candidates representing a wide range of views, from the far right to the ultraliberal, are running. The main challenger to President Andrzej Duda, who was elected in 2015 and held a commanding lead in the polls before the delay, is Rafal Trzaskowski, Warsaw’s mayor.

In many ways, the election is a referendum on the governing Law and Justice party, which swept to power in 2015 and set about an ambitious agenda to reshape the state. For opponents of the government, the governing party represents a fundamental threat to democracy and has set the country on a course already charted in Hungary, where single-party control has allowed a steady drift to autocratic rule.

Law and Justice party leaders and Mr. Duda have framed the election as a struggle over the soul of the nation, singling out the L.G.B.T. community with the kind of vitriol that was directed at migrants five years ago, when immigration helped fuel the rise of populist leaders across the continent.

But even as old divisions defined much of the debate before the election, it played out against the very different backdrop of a pandemic.

Poland was one of the first nations to close its borders, and when it locked down in March, it did so completely. Military police were even dispatched to the streets to make sure people did not break the rules.

It was also one of the first nations in Europe to ease coronavirus restrictions, and on May 20, the mandatory order to wear masks in public was lifted. Just about everything that was open before the pandemic is open, including gyms, restaurants and movie theaters.

With just 285 new cases reported on Friday, the reopening has not yet led to major spikes in new infections. So far, there have been over 33,000 confirmed cases and 1,429 total deaths.

But the one restriction that remains is on large gatherings of over 150 people.

And elections, by their nature, are large gatherings.

On Friday night, in the Old Town Square outside the Royal Castle that once housed Poland’s monarchs and was rebuilt brick by brick after being destroyed in World War II, several hundred people gathered to hear Mr. Trzaskowski’s final campaign speech.

“If we lose it’s going to be dreadful,” said one supporter, Agata Rzeszewska. “Democracy is going to end.”

Magda Szczawińska worried that the governing party might use the pandemic to challenge the results if it loses.

“I’m very much worried,” she said. She feared the government would declare a state of emergency to delay a runoff election to buy time if it looks like it will lose.

“The pandemic is an element of the political game in Poland,” she said.

The election is widely viewed as one of the most important in the history of this young democracy, which held its first, partially free elections in 1989.

It has been an often bitter campaign, with the governing party turning to cultural issues to rally its loyalists. Mr. Duda has likened homosexuality to communist ideology and only eased off his harsh rhetoric after widespread international condemnation.

Mr. Duda is not technically a member of the governing Law and Justice party, but has the support of the party’s founder and chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

In fact, though, the Polish president has had a hard time escaping from the shadow of Mr. Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland and the architect of the government’s agenda.

Mr. Kaczynski was often frustrated by court rulings when his party led the country from 2005 to 2007. Since returning to power in 2015, he has moved to undo what he sees as the mistakes of the early years of Polish democracy.

Legal experts from the European Commission have found that many of these changes have posed a threat to judicial fairness and undermined democratic values.

The fight over the courts is just one in a series of pitched battles with the European Union. Mr. Kaczynski has often cast those battles as fights for Polish sovereignty.

  • Updated June 24, 2020

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

“Poland is and should remain an island of freedom,” Mr. Kaczynski said at a meeting of the party’s youth convention on Wednesday, the same day Mr. Duda was visiting President Trump in Washington. “If today President Andrzej Duda is in the United States holding talks about Polish-American relations, including in the military sphere, he is fighting for freedom, Polish freedom.”

Polish voters overwhelmingly like being in the E.U., however, and Mr. Trzaskowski has made repairing that relationship a key part of his platform

“It’s important that nobody separates us from Europe,” he said during a recent campaign appearance. “We will be a tough partner, but a partner who doesn’t insult anyone; we will be a state fighting for our interest; a state which will be a constructive partner. A state which will fight global warming, which will fight for jobs and for Poland being respected again in the E.U.”

In Poland, election officials said that the logistics of socially distanced voting were challenging but manageable.

The country’s Health Ministry issued detailed guidelines for all voting districts. Every station was required to provide disposable gloves, disinfectant liquid, medical-grade face masks and face shields.

Voters should be given a zone of personal space, roughly three feet in every direction. And the stations must be aired before voting begins and at least once every hour for 10 minutes.

The traditional green tablecloths will not be used so surfaces can be easily cleaned.

“Surfaces such as door handles, ballot boxes, table tops, handles, light switches, etc. that may be touched by people inside the polling station will be cleaned with the disinfectant liquid before the commission starts work,” according to the guidelines. And then, they must be wiped down once an hour and at least six times on Election Day.

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting.

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