Spat over presidential election tests Poland's ruling coalition

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s conservative ruling alliance faced the risk of a split on Friday after a junior partner refused to support a plan to allow a presidential election to take place on May 10, as scheduled, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

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The national Law and Justice (PiS) party, which leads the alliance, has proposed legislation to introduce postal ballots to replace physical voting booths.

But a more liberal wing, Accord, said it was unrealistic for the election to proceed and proposed a postponement of two years. A parliamentary vote on the PiS plan was initially expected on Friday but was postponed.

The election is crucial for PiS whose ally, incumbent Andrzej Duda, is running first in opinion polls. PiS needs his support to make further progress on its conservative agenda and judiciary reforms which the European Union says subvert the rule of law.

Critics say the party is concerned over its ability to win if the ballot is delayed and the economy sinks into recession because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“May 10 is an unrealistic date,” Accord leader Jaroslaw Gowin told the Polsat News broadcaster late on Friday. “We need to be prepared, we need procedures.”

Gowin said his group would discuss the PiS proposal and take a decision ahead of a rescheduled parliamentary vote.

A PiS source told Reuters the vote could determine the future of the coalition if any alliance members opposed the legislation.

The PiS-led coalition holds 235 of the 460 seats in the lower house and would lose its majority without Accord.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of nationalist PiS and Poland’s de facto leader, reaffirmed the party’s position that the presidential election should take place as scheduled.

Accord’s Gowin said, however, that he had seen research that the coronavirus would make it unsafe to vote for months.

Opposition parties also want the poll postponed, saying restrictions imposed to halt the spread of coronavirus will prevent campaigning and that the vote, even via post, is a health hazard.

“Lets work together on solutions that Poles are waiting for,” Borys Budka, head of the main opposition party, the Civic Platform, said in parliament. “The election can take even a year from now. What’s important is that nobody loses their job.”

Earlier in the week, parliament approved a coronavirus rescue package to support the economy but rejected many changes proposed by the opposition such as mandatory weekly coronavirus tests for medical workers.

Analysts say the economy could shrink as much as 4% this year as a result of restrictions on public life.

There were 392 new coronavirus cases reported in Poland on Thursday, the highest daily increase so far, with 320 more reported on Friday, bringing the total to 3,266, according to the health ministry. 65 people have died.

Reporting by Warsaw bureau; Editing by Catherine Evans, Justyna Pawlak and Grant McCool