The imposition of restrictions to curb the COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the way in which individuals and states conduct their affairs. This is exacerbated by the uncertainty associated with stemming the tide of the pandemic, which complicates planning for scheduled activities.
Elections, in particular, stand to be negatively impacted by of the imposition of states of emergency, which restrict movement and mass gatherings. This will also affect electoral processes such as boundary demarcations where applicable, and primaries for political parties to select presidential and parliamentary candidates.
In addition, the fear of contagion could also limit the extent and level of voter participation in numerous electoral processes – including the validation of voter registers, and in some instances, fresh or partial voter registration, as well as the attendance of campaigns and rallies. These are all important components of civic participation and governance that contribute to the credibility and legitimacy of elections.
The African Union’s (AU’s) 2020 Elections Calendar shows that 18 countries are scheduled to hold elections this year. So far, only six countries have conducted their polls, with 12 more elections yet to be held in 2020. A number of these elections are expected to be preceded by fresh or partial voter registration. Elections in some countries are scheduled for as soon as May, while others are slated only for December.
In some states, changing the electoral calendar could trigger constitutional and other legal crises. In some instances, the risk of violence related to postponing or cancelling elections may outweigh the health risk related to coronavirus infections.
The challenge posed by the COVID-19-related restrictions has important implications for the AU, the regional economic communities and regional mechanisms (RECs and RMs), election management bodies (EMBs), civil-society organisations (CSOs) as well as political parties. A fine balancing act is therefore required to manage the public-health imperatives of managing a pandemic while safeguarding the governance gains made through elections on the continent.
There is a real possibility that COVID-19 could be instrumentalised by ruling governments to perpetuate incumbency. On the other hand, there are also real challenges that could pose a threat to the credibility of elections and electoral processes conducted within this period. For instance, in the wake of social-distancing measures and bans on large gatherings in some countries, it is important to reflect on the form that campaigning would take. Equally important is the fact that voters might refrain from going to the polls for fear of getting infected.
The pandemic also provides an opportunity for countries to innovate and deploy modern technologies for elections. However, these digital platforms are associated with hefty additional costs. As many African governments have to recalibrate efforts and realign resources to respond to COVID-19, this is unlikely to be a priority. The situation could become even more challenging. The global recession of economies means that development partners that have traditionally supported elections may not be able to sustain previous levels of support.
The AU’s strategic leadership is most needed at this time. The continental body will crucially need to guide national efforts to manage election-related challenges in a way that limits crises and rather promotes consensus, decision-making and good governance.
Yet the AU itself is constrained. Travel restrictions imposed by the AU Commission (AUC) and some member states mean that staff are unable to undertake their usual election-related activities, including deploying assessment and observation missions to countries preparing to go to the polls. To mitigate this, AUC staff are continuing engagement on digital platforms. There are also ongoing internal consultations on the establishment of a COVID-19 Task Force on Political Matters. Once established, the task force will be able to identify and flag hotspots on the continent for immediate action.
The AUC must, as a matter of urgency, provide strategic leadership and establish a convening and coordinating platform to work with the RECs/RMs, the United Nations (UN) and international electoral bodies to develop a strategy for engagement. The strategy should include concerted, evidence-based technical support to affected countries. Using the RECs/RM country-liaison offices and UN country presences, the AUC and its partners can offer country-specific technical advice to guide decision-making in whether to proceed with, or postpone, electoral processes in individual states. There is a real risk that postponed or cancelled elections may trigger crises.
To help guarantee political trust in EMBs and minimise the escalation of conflicts, early, broad-based and inclusive political consultations are critical. Countries’ readiness and ability to hold credible elections should be assessed in consultation with the EMBs, political parties, relevant medical experts and CSOs.
As part of their conflict-prevention measures and because of current restrictions, the AUC and its partners must also prepare in-country mediation capabilities for each country for different scenarios. Developing and obtaining pre-approvals for contracts where needed should be prioritised. In addition, online training for identified persons should be considered to ensure timely deployment, if there is a need.
The AUC will also need to strengthen its networks at the country level to be able to perform some of its technical tasks, such as long-term observation. It may be useful to establish Letters of Agreement with credible and professional CSOs in the affected countries to carry out defined tasks on its behalf. Given the novelty of some of the platforms these CSOs may have to use, the AUC must provide online capacity-development opportunities, including training, mentoring and coaching to bring the organisations up to speed.
Long-term election observation is of the utmost importance during this period. In addition to working with local CSOs to observe events in-country, the AUC itself must enhance its own capacity for medium- to long-term observation of political activity in the digital public sphere. In particular, close attention must be paid to scrutinising misinformation, hate speech and efforts to contain COVID-19.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and the challenges of COVID-19 also offer affected countries an opportunity to reflect on the methods of conducting an election during a health pandemic. South Korea, the first country to hold elections during the coronavirus pandemic, offers some pointers for other countries. These include the use of electronic voting, passing a temperature test, wearing of masks, washing of hands and wearing of gloves before voting, as well as the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by the electoral staff. In addition, the establishment of special booths for medical workers and COVID-19 patients are some of the lessons that may be useful for African countries.
On the African continent, Mali and Guinea – which have also had elections during the pandemic – both offer some lessons on voting during the COVID-19 crisis. Both countries put in place measures for hand washing and social distancing. Notwithstanding, Mali recorded a low voter turnout, while the voter turnout in Guinea was appreciable. Although multiple reasons may account for the different turnouts, they reinforce the need for customised strategies for each country slated to conduct elections this year.
Most African states may not be able to afford electronic voting, but countries could explore a combination of methods. These include Short Message Service (SMS) voting, Internet voting and face-to-face voting that respects social-distancing protocols and the use of PPE by election officials. The AUC and its partners have a critical responsibility to work with affected countries to avoid cutting off and disenfranchising populations who may not be digitally literate, especially during campaigns.
Now more than ever, national and international consensus is required in each situation to address COVID-19-related election challenges that may arise. The AUC has a daunting task on its hands, but with a clear strategy and willingness to work with its partners, it should be able to help countries sustain their governance gains concerning elections.
Dr Linda Darkwa is the Coordinator of the Training for Peace (TfP) programme in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.