REFILE-Poland’s Duda promises jobless benefits hike ahead of election

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By Marcin Goclowski

WARSAW, May 1 (Reuters) – Poland’s government will hike unemployment benefits, President Andrzej Duda said in an election broadcast on Friday, promising “an unbelievably high amount” of support for households and businesses struggling through the coronavirus crisis.

Duda’s 2-1/2-hour-long speech, carried on state television, indicated the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party will press ahead with the May 10 presidential vote despite accusations it is putting its own political interests ahead of public health.

With a lockdown in place to curb the pandemic, PiS wants voting to be exclusively by post. But critics including nine former Polish prime ministers and presidents say its proposed changes to the electoral code risk an unfree and unfair ballot.

Speaking on Friday from a film studio near Warsaw, Duda said Poles who lose their jobs during the crisis would receive a monthly payment of 1,300 zlotys ($313.32), compared with the current unemployment benefit of 848-1,017 zlotys before taxes.

A temporary additional benefit will pay 1,200 zlotys a month, part of measures to support the economy he said would amount to hundreds of billions of zlotys.

“Even if someone says today that we are on our knees because of this crisis, I will say: be calm, we will get up from these knees,” Duda said, standing alone on a blue stage decorated with Polish flags and pictures of people.

Development Minister Jadwiga Emilewicz had told Reuters earlier in April that the government planned to increase unemployment payments to about half the minimum wage of 2,600 zlotys.

Poland has not yet officially reported an increase in joblessness because of the pandemic, but the labour ministry sees the unemployment rate doubling to around 10% at year-end. The finance ministry is forecasting an economic contraction of 3.4% this year.

The country of 38 million people has reported 13,105 coronavirus cases and 651 deaths, with the health ministry warning the peak is still ahead.

PiS, with which Duda is allied, has based its successful electoral strategy on hefty social handouts and nationalist rhetoric. Victory for him is seen as crucial for the government’s hopes of implementing its conservative agenda, as the president holds the power to veto laws.

“In the near future you will have an opportunity to hold me accountable for the last five years. I am asking you to do so: take part in this election, cast your vote, show me your support,” Duda, whose term ends in August, said on Friday.

Opinion polls show Duda leading several opposition-backed rivals in the presidential race, 10 days before the vote is due.

Several other candidates have said they will not take part in the poll if it is held as planned, while some opinion polls show fewer than 30% of Poles are likely to vote.

On Thursday, a group of former Polish prime ministers and presidents, including Lech Walesa, who helped overthrow communism as head of trade union Solidarity and ex-European Council chief Donald Tusk, urged voters to boycott the election.

The government, which is in conflict with the European Union over number of issues related to the rule of law, says a postal ballot will ensure the election can be held safely.

Parliament may not vote on whether to proceed with the plan for postal votes until as late as May 6. ($1 = 4.1491 zlotys) (Reporting by Marcin Goclowski; Additional reporting by Anna Koper; Editing by Justyna Pawlak and Catherine Evans)