PHOTO: Piotr Skornicki /Agencja Gazeta

PHOTO: Piotr Skornicki /Agencja Gazeta

Election Poland. Elections with no ballots

Presidential elections were formally held in Poland on Sunday, May 10, 2020, but in practice no election took place and no ballots were cast. The distinction between what happens formally and what takes place in practice has become more and more important for Polish politics and public life.

Published on on May 19, 2020

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Presidential elections were formally held in Poland on Sunday, May 10, 2020, but in practice no election took place and no ballots were cast. The distinction between what happens formally and what takes place in practice has become more and more important for Polish politics and public life. Formally the Polish government is headed by the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, but in practice everyone knows that Jarosław Kaczyński pulls the strings. Formally Kaczyński is just a regular MP of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party but in practice he is the most powerful person in Poland. Formally President Andrzej Duda is just that, the president. In practice under the Corona crisis he has become the spokesperson of many governmental initiatives to fight the crisis thus being able to merge the official position of the head of the state – and consequent access to the media – and his presidential campaign, something denied of the other candidates on public health grounds. The same distinction extends far beyond the politics of individuals. For instance, the plans to totally ban abortion is one just example of proposing legislation over something that everyone knows in practice will continue to persist: in 2016 slightly over 1000 legal abortions were performed in Poland, but estimates illegal abortions vary from 50 000 to 200 000.[1] The May 10th elections join the growing list of events where the formal and the practice manifest their distance.

What is at stake with the Presidential elections?

The president in Poland has the right to initiate legislation and veto bills. It is the latter power that has become crucial for these elections. Presidential veto could be overturned by three fifths majority of the Lower House of the Sejm, but the current government lacks such a majority in the Sejm. The re-election Duda would guarantee the government free hands for its remaining three years. A President antithetical to the cause of PiS could, on the other hand, seriously complicate the position of the government.

The wrestle over the Presidency is thus a question over the sovereignty of the government vis-a-vis the parliament, something the government now enjoys, but what is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. The key question in these elections is the division of power, not so much its contents. The leading PiS candidate and the incumbent Duda consequently has appealed to the electorate not primarily by formulating his own campaign, but arguing that his re-election would enable the government to continue its reforms. Such a formulation not only indicates the weakness of the independence of state institutions, but also reveals the emptiness the current President’s position. The elections and events around it are, in fact, a plain example of how pure power manifests itself in Polish politics.

The formal and the practice

The distinction between what happens formally and what takes place in practice is not just about the government ruling with an increasing grip over society. The issue is more philosophical and has to do with the lack of vocabulary to arrest the present political moment in Poland. This inability to find a suitable vocabulary for the contemporary politics in Poland manifests itself in the perception of politics a sequence of ephemeral and fluid political events that seemingly conquest the whole political horizon but at the same time appear embarrassingly banal and lack any coherence. Take for instance the feud over the form of the presidential elections: by postal vote or in person. To put through their vision of postal elections, PiS without hesitation passed a new electoral law just five weeks before the scheduled elections knowing that this was both unconstitutional and in practice impossible to carry out. The new bill not only provided for a postal voting, but it side-lined the National Electoral Committee of organising the elections delegating this task – in practice – to communes and the post. There were also other criticism concerning just how secret the ballot would be (as the envelope including the ballot should also include the name and the personal number of the voter) as well as how people not present in their postal address could vote.

Similarly, the final fate of the May 10th as the election day came from a seeming duel between two conservative gentlemen, Kaczyński and his government ally Jarosław Gowin, so not between the government and the opposition, but within the parties of the government. Like Kaczyński, Gowin, as of April 8th, lacks any formal government position having been previously both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Education. Gowin resigned from his governmental positions as a protest against Kaczyński’s wish to push for the May 10th elections. Once an informal agreement between “two Jarosławs” that elections would not take place in practice was reached on Wednesday ahead of Sunday’s elections, the government was confident to declare that they expect the Supreme Court to declare the elections – that formally took place, but where no ballots were cast and no polling place was open – to be invalid and thereby schedule new elections sometime during the summer. The fact that the government is confident in a future ruling of the Supreme Court, calling it “predictable”[2] in an official statement is yet another indication of the subjugation of state institutions to the ruling party.

There is no lack of individual incidents that can point towards a certain conclusion: growing subjugation of state institutions to the ruling party, lack of recognition of the opposition, growing authoritarianism, exploitation of Covid-19 and so on, but do these words help in formulating a more synthetic understanding of Polish politics and the its relation to the way in which the Presidential elections were handled? As the elections in practice did not take place, and there is very little to say about the numbers or about agendas and debates, this is an opportunity ask a question of how the distinctions of formal and practice became so central in Polish politics. To answer this question, I will refer to the philosopher cum historian Andrzej Leder and his book Prześniona rewolucja (2014) [A Dreamed through Revolution].[3]

The Weakness of Political Subject

The fundamental problem in Polish politics is the inability of political cooperation between PiS and most other parties. In fact, the whole mess with the elections results from lack of simple cooperation. The government did not need to first announce the elections and then await their practical impossibility. They could have declared a state of natural emergency, which would have postponed the elections until the state of emergency is discontinued. This would have, however, required the support of the opposition after 30 days. There is little doubt that the opposition would have perceived this option the best – and even the government ally Gowin and his faction preferred just this option, but this would have also made it clear that PiS has to rely on the opposition, even cooperate with it. Cooperation requires a common symbolic language, which is at present absent in Poland. Andrzej Leder in Prześniona rewolucja (2014) gives one explanation how and why this is the case.

Leder argues that a social revolution took place in Poland between 1939 and 1956. By this he means that the society underwent a bourgeoisie modernisation, whereby a society where the majority were peasants was transformed into a society with a majority of urban working and middle class people. This social revolution took place in two stages. The first was the elimination of 3 million Polish Jews during the Holocaust. The positions of petty bourgeoisie in small towns mediating trade between the ethnic Polish peasants and the urban population were in many cases hold by the Jews. After the Holocaust, these positions were now occupied by ethnic Poles moving from the countryside to towns and cities. The second stage came with the communist takeover of power. This replaced the old educated intellectuals and elites with newly promoted cadre from peasant and working class backgrounds.

The problem with these two fundamental social changes, first revamping the social structure of society and the second its old cultural hegemony, Leder argues, is that no one declares any responsibility for them in Poland. The public official discourse in Poland is clear that the Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, but it was ethnic Poles who “benefited” from the expulsion. Similarly, the communist takeover was backed up by the Soviets, but it was the Polish peasants and working class that experienced social advancement. Leder borrows Robert Pfaller’s and Slavoj Žižek’s term interpassivity to describe this “passive interaction” that characterises the position of Polish society vis-à-vis the social revolution. Interpassivity results in the ambiguous conflation of feelings of guilt and enjoyment (jouissance in Lacan’s psychoanalysis that Leder employs in his analysis). Unlike in, for instance, in France, where the revolution created a new symbolic field around the ideas of rational modernity and the rights of man and citizen, the revolution in Poland between 1939 and 1956 did not create a new symbolic field that could describe what actually happened and how that has been translated into new division of power in society. Władysław Gomułka’s programme of “national socialism” began to seek legitimacy for the communist system from Polish nationalism and romantic past. Ever since, the gap between the official discourse and the events in practice have just grown.

Solidarity and the overthrow of the communist leadership in 1989 were indicators of the position and power the emancipated working middle class had acquired in Poland since 1945. Yet what happened in practice, was that the old communist nomenklatura was best disposed of to take advantage of capitalism. The public discourse of victory of democracy and solidarity was in practice completed by rampant profit-seeking survival of the fittest. In all three examples, it is difficult to track down who is the main actor in the events. There is always someone else to blame. This fact, Leder observes, has led to a situation where the most powerful actor in society – the middle class – lacks both public discourse recognising its position and self-awareness of its own power, and even declines it.

Gomułka’s turn to romantic past for legitimacy of the Polish way has been no anomaly. Modern, industrial Poland, lacks a public symbolic field that matches with its reality, Leder continues. Consequently, there is no political subject position that could at the same time form a public opinion and claim responsibility for the current political situation. In other words, the true holders of power and the symbolic field that would make that power visible and understandable never met one another. PiS social reforms initiated during its first term in government as well as attempts to formulate a more “national” economy, the so-called Morawiecki Plan, were attempts to this direction, but the discourses that combined the social reforms simultaneously drew on two contradictory sources: one source was modern welfare thinking with universal benefits and equal rights, the other was the nationalist “revenge” against foreign, “colonising” powers. Moreover, the modern welfare thinking was applied very selectively. In this way, they cannot bridge the gap between the public discourse and the individually experience practice. This is clearly shown in the way how the government time after time have had to back from its more radical conservative policies in the face of growing mass demonstrations – that individually felt experience of what is the practice contesting the official discourse.

What Will Follow?

To understand the persistent gap between what is said to happen formally, how it is described and talked about in public discourse and the individually experienced practice of life, I have suggested, Leder’s analysis of the history of political subjectivity in Poland, the mass experiences of interpassivity, can provide some useful tools. The persistence of this gap enable the government – or anyone who holds power formally – to proceed by operating on two fronts at the same time: the formal and the practical. The formal one delegates the task of declaring the elections invalid where it formally belongs – to the courts. The practical front allows the government to predict the rulings of the courts.

The question arises why the opposition is unable to put this to an end. This is because the opposition behaves in the same way. There were, in my opinion, ingenious plans of all the opposition candidates withdrawing their candidacy from the Presidential elections rendering them in practice a non-free election. But they did not, as they could not agree on the plan, trust each other or resist the formal temptation that what if, what if they could win. On a more societal level, the problem is that there is no symbolic field for the opposition to contest the government. Conservative politics is naturally better positioned to benefit from nostalgia, victimhood and revenge as political key words than any progressive politics. The problem of any progressive politics is that they too have been unable to claim responsibility for the social advances carried out: the big social reforms such as health care and education or working conditions were all projects of the communist regime. Reclaiming credit from them can hardly work in post-1989 Poland. The same applies to (neo)liberal project in Poland: its inability to think broader than the corporation as the unit of society has hindered the creation of a symbolic field that could mobilise the masses.

Given the situation, the most likely outcome of the future elections is that whoever ascends the throne, the distinction between the formal and what takes place in practice will continue. It is a convenient distinction to a politician, as it negates any responsibility for the consequences of political actions.


[1] Hussein, Julia et al (2018). Abortion in Poland: Politics, Progression and Regression, Reproductive Health Matters 26 (52): 11–14.



[3] Leder, Andrzej (2014). Prześniona rewolucja. Ćwiczenia z logiki historycznej, Warszawa: Wydawnictwo krytyki politycznej.

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