Polish health minister says presidential vote in two years would be safest

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland’s health minister on Friday urged a delay of the presidential election scheduled for May 10, saying postponing it by two years would be the safest option because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Earlier on Friday the government announced an extension of the closure of schools and kindergartens until May 24, which have been shuttered since mid-March.

Poland was among the first countries in Europe last month to impose strict lockdown measures to contain the outbreak, and has reported relatively few deaths from the COVID-19 respiratory disease that the coronavirus can cause.

It has started to ease restrictions on some activities to try to limit the damage to its economy, the biggest in Central Europe.

But the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government has so far resisted pressure to postpone the election, arguing it can be held via mail-in ballots instead of polling booths to limit any contagion risks among voters and electoral officials.

It was not immediately clear whether Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski’s comments, made to the private Polsat broadcaster, meant PiS had shifted its stance.

“One option is that we shelve this subject for two years and really deal with the fight (against the pandemic). I think this is the best option and I recommend it,” Szumowski said.

Critics have accused PiS of putting political gain ahead of public health in its insistence the vote be held on time. Opinion polls show the incumbent Andrzej Duda, a PiS ally, easily winning the vote if it is held next month.

PiS has also suggested a constitutional change to extend Duda’s term by two years and to introduce seven-year presidential mandates instead of the current five years would be a solution. But senior PiS figures have insisted a vote on time was preferred because it would safeguard democratic procedures.

Parks and forests reopened this week, and more people are now allowed in shops at one time. The government has said it may reopen hotels in May and some media have suggested shopping malls could be also be reopened.

But the government resisted pressure to reopen schools immediately, even though economists from Citibank Handlowy said in April that every month of schools remaining closed cut Poland’s economic growth by 0.1-0.3%.

Government forecasters expect the economy to contract by between 1% and 4.5% this year, Poland’s first recession since communist rule ended in 1989.

By Friday, the European Union member state of 38 million had reported 10,892 cases and 494 deaths. On Friday the number of deaths increased by 40, the fastest since the start of epidemic in Poland.

Additional reporting by Pawel Florkiewicz and Alan Charlish, Editing by Justyna Pawlak, Timothy Heritage and Jonathan Oatis