Coronavirus and upcoming elections in Africa: What are the options?

Image: Getty, Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP
Image: Getty, Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP

At the rapid rate at which the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has been spreading, it was only a matter of time before Africa was affected.

At the time of writing, cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in 18 African countries. But what seems to have been relatively unexplored, is the impact the virus might have on core political processes, one of which is elections.

Elections have been scheduled for this year in 24 African countries and the autonomous region of Somaliland. Some have already taken place, while the vast majority are scheduled for the second half of 2020.

Of the 18 countries in which COVID-19 cases have emerged, nine have yet to go to the polls. This group includes Egypt, which is most severely affected with 166 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to date.

Public spaces are being avoided or closed off from the populace in some of the worst affected areas globally. Elections, by their nature, involve mass gatherings in public spaces – how might this change in the presence of COVID-19?

Africa’s response to Ebola: could this provide answers?

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first highly infectious disease to hit Africa. The response to the more lethal Ebola virus could provide insight into how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as how polling would have to adapt to the outbreak.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia and concurrent Senate elections indicate that postponing or cancelling an election is not the same as cancelling a concert. When it comes to elections, the show must go on. Failing to hold an election has economic implications, but cancelling or postponing an election comes with the ‘added challenge of potentially pushing a country into a constitutional crisis’, Grant Masterson of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) explains.

Elections run on a fairly rigid timeline. For a number of African countries, Masterson says there is generally a period of four or five years between elections, and an additional ‘window-period’ of three months. According to Masterson, ‘constitutional crises’ occur when an election is not held within the required timeframe and a government remains operative in a ‘quasi-legal area’. Effectively, this means a country is left with an ‘old government without a renewed mandate’.

Liberia’s 2014 Senate elections went ahead as a matter of necessity. The New York Times reported at the time that if the elections had been cancelled, ‘the nine-year terms of half the members in the 30-seat Senate would have expired with no successors, provoking a constitutional crisis’.

The decision to continue was criticised as experts warned that ‘mass gatherings at the polls’ carried a substantial risk to further spreading the virus. Masterson adds that due to the ‘huge amount of both people and materials moving all around the country’ in a very short space of time during an election, the risk of infection increases substantially.

In 2014, electoral officials in Liberia set in place a number of precautionary measures at voting centres. According to The New York Times , these included a requirement that voters ‘keep a distance of three feet [almost one metre] from one another’ while queuing, voting centres were equipped with ‘chlorine hand-washing stations’ and instead of voters rolling their fingers ‘across an inkpad’, their fingers were swabbed with blue ink.

Current elections elsewhere also leaving clues

In the United States, primary elections have begun and are set to continue until the general election in November. A recent news report hinted at ‘concerns’ that the pandemic could ‘disrupt the election process itself’.

Daryl Glaser, Professor in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, says that he was surprised to see that ‘elections have gone ahead, not only in the US but [in] serious [COVID-19] hotspots like Iran. It will be interesting to see if that changes.’ He suspects that it will.

Earlier this month, Israel made use of special voting tents to enable quarantined voters to exercise their political rights at the polls. In the US , postal voting is seen as a low-risk option to enable elections to continue.

In Europe, the effect of this disease outbreak on elections is becoming clearer.

In England, ‘ local and mayoral elections ‘ have been pushed back to May 2021, one year from their original date as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The decision to postpone the elections by a year, when the Electoral Commission advised a postponement of some months, has been questioned.

In France, the decision to continue with the first round of local government elections on 15 March 2020 also sparked controversy. However, the precautions taken at these polls also provide options for conducting elections during this pandemic. The Guardian reported on voters being instructed to maintain a distance of one metre apart in queues, to bring their own pens to polling stations, and to use disinfectant on their hands prior to marking ballots. Despite these precautions, the second round of the French elections, initially scheduled for 22 March 2020, has been postponed until 21 June 2020 .

In Africa, the outlook is different. Masterson says that using isolation tents similar to those used during recent elections in Israel would be too expensive. The size of elections is a key consideration.

He says that the number of polling stations needing to be set up in Tanzania and Ethiopia this year will number 68,000 and 60,000 respectively. Remote voting could become viable, but Masterson says that postal voting is not ‘a very realistic option for Africa’ with ‘digital forms of voting’, becoming the far more likely alternative, based on ‘the levels of penetration of mobile devices’.

Whatever decisions are made, Africa will no doubt be faced with a number of challenges related to the pandemic and how its people will exercise their democratic rights in an effective and risk-free environment.

What will be needed is strong leadership and high levels of planning. This would include closely monitoring the precautions taken during current elections elsewhere in the world, and tailoring these to the needs of the continent.

19 Mar 2020
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