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Poland's PiS change electoral rules ahead of presidential vote


By Alan Charlish

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's ruling nationalists fast-tracked changes to the electoral code through parliament in the early hours of Saturday in a bid to press ahead with presidential elections in May which have been criticized by opposition parties who want the vote to be postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The changes, which would allow postal voting for senior citizens and those in quarantine or self-isolating, were an unexpected last-minute addition to a bill that was intended to shield the economy from the effects of the health emergency.

Poland is due to hold the first round of its presidential election on May 10, with incumbent Andrzej Duda, an ally of the ruling nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, well ahead in the polls.

The constitutional court ruled in 2006 that changes to the electoral code could not be made in the six months preceding the elections.

"This move is completely against the constitution and electoral law," said Andrzej Zoll, a former head of Poland's constitutional court, told the Onet website. "It must be emphasized clearly: six months before the election, no changes can be made."

PiS lawmaker Marcin Horala rejected the criticism of the changes.

"The ban on changing the rules six months before the elections concerns its essential elements, such as the size of constituencies... Technical and organizational changes are allowed," he wrote on Twitter.

ELECTIONS

Victory for Duda is crucial for PiS's hopes of implementing its agenda after it won a second term in power in 2019, as the president has the right to veto laws.

PiS lost control of the upper house of parliament, the senate, in 2019. While the senate can delay the progress of bills it cannot stop them completely.

"In May they (PiS) have a chance to win in the first round with big support for their candidate on a very low turnout," said Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist at Warsaw University.

"They know full well that in today's state of shock and crisis people gravitate towards those in power," she said. "However, the effects of their poor management of the crisis will come very quickly and even in autumn their candidate might not win."

Lawmakers voted online for the first time to pass the "anti-crisis shield" package, which is worth over 200 billion zlotys ($49 billion), after watching speakers in a largely empty chamber by video-link.

Opposition lawmakers complained of problems logging in to the online voting system.

The measures still have to be debated by the opposition-controlled senate. Senate speaker Tomasz Grodzki, a vocal critic of the government, said opposition senators disapproved of adding electoral changes to a bill on the economy.

($1 = 4.0727 zlotys)

(Reporting by Alan Charlish, additional reporting by Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Koper and Agnieszka Barteczko; Editing by Jason Neely and Mike Harrison)

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