Pandemic at the Polls

Sub-Saharan Africa is facing the twin challenges of surging COVID-19 infections and a packed electoral calendar. The region is expected to hold as many as 16 polls by the year’s end, including presidential and general elections in Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Seychelles, Guinea, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Niger, Ghana, and possibly Somalia. African governments—similar to global counterparts, including the United States—will have to weigh the tradeoffs between public safety and democratic imperatives. Leaders who decide to hold planned elections risk hastening the virus’s transmission. On the other hand, the COVID-19 outbreak presents an opportunity for leaders to strengthen their grip on power, exploiting health restrictions to suppress turnout or even delay voting.

For a cautionary tale, look no further than Guinea. On March 22, President Alpha Conde, in the midst of the looming public health crisis, decided to proceed with a controversial referendum to amend the constitution to enable him to run for a third term in office. He insisted on the vote, even though the country has confirmed two cases of COVID-19 and banned foreign travel and crowds of more than 100 people. The referendum unsurprisingly passed, enabling Conde to amend the constitution, but at a considerable cost to Guinea’s democracy and possibly its public health. Protesters attacked several buildings and destroyed voting material overnight Friday into Saturday, and at least 10 people died on the day of the vote. In addition, the government inconsistently enforced measures to minimize the virus’s spread among the voters. Some polling stations required voters to wash their hands, while in other areas crowds squeezed in line and few people wore masks.

Below is a series of decision points, warnings, and recommendations—drawing from recent experiences in France, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Liberia during their respective Ebola outbreaks. This commentary also liberally borrows from the Brennan Center’s recent memo, “How to Protect the 2020 Vote from the Coronavirus,” published on March 16.

Vote, Postpone, or Cancel

African governments are currently mulling whether to stick to the electoral schedule, delay voting, or cancel some or all upcoming elections. A government’s latitude to shift an election depends on the type of poll and the country’s constitutional requirements. Some election dates are set in stone, whereas others are more flexible. Guinea’s recent referendum, for instance, was discretionary and should have been postponed because of an opposition boycott. Angola’s first-ever municipal elections, tentatively scheduled for 2020, are currently under discussion in parliament, making them a potential candidate for a delay. Other countries have shelved votes in the past, making it plausible that they could delay or cancel elections once again. Mali went ahead with its legislative races on March 29, even though the government has postponed this vote multiple times since 2018. A similar situation exists in Chad where legislative elections, now planned for 2020, have been rescheduled repeatedly since 2015. Finally, several constitutions, including Tanzania’s, stipulate that the president, with legislative approval, may declare a state of emergency if there is “some kind of danger which clearly constitutes a threat to the state.”

If a country opts to move forward with its election during COVID-19, it runs the risk of spreading the virus throughout the country. While the New York Times recently concluded that past U.S. elections have not led to national surges of viral diseases, the potential for the virus’s expansion should not be discounted in sub-Saharan Africa.

  • The pre-election environment is replete with massive rallies, and election day often features long lines and crowded polling and tabulations stations. Indeed, academic Dan Paget has argued that elections in Africa are “rally-intensive,” meaning the political rally plays a prominent role in the campaign. He notes that Tanzania, which has a presidential election this October, is one of the most rally-intensive.

  • Election commissions are routinely tasked to manage elections amid overlapping security and political crises. Logistical challenges, moreover, are a common feature of African elections, often affecting the ability of the vote to occur in a timely fashion. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has promised to deliver the country’s first free and fair election in August 2020, despite unrest in some parts of the country and continued disruption of internet and phone services in Oromia region. Abiy recently acknowledged that he is considering postponing the vote if the government cannot control the virus’s spread.

  • On election day, voters often swamp polling and tabulation stations. Ghana, which expects to hold presidential and legislative elections in December, experienced lengthy queues in its last election cycle. One BBC reporter recalled that “loud noises of disapproval rung out when polling officers positioned the voting booths away from the crowd. People demanded that the booths be made to face them so they could see people going in.”

In addition, the government’s decision, either to proceed or delay, threatens a country’s democratic trajectory. The COVID-19 crisis enables autocratic leaders to use public health restrictions to tamper with voter registration, restrict opposition movements, and preclude international and domestic monitors from observing the polls. Guinean president Conde’s insistence on holding the country’s recent referendum during an outbreak and in defiance of an opposition boycott ensured a low turnout, setting the stage for his third term in office. Similarly, during the DRC’s Ebola outbreak in 2018, then-president Joseph Kabila canceled voting in affected areas in eastern Congo, preventing the main opposition candidate from benefiting from one of his key strongholds.

In this year’s election cycle, several leaders could be tempted to use COVID-19 as a pretext to retain political control.

  • Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza, who recently tapped a close associate as his successor, could retract his decision to step down in May, citing the health crisis as his rationale. In January, Nkurunziza surprised most observers when he agreed to hand over power. His announcement was a shock in part because he oversaw a violent campaign to amend the constitution in his favor in 2015. The president, however, might argue that he needs to remain in power if there is a COVID-19 outbreak. Nkurunziza is an evangelical Christian who believes he was chosen by God to rule Burundi and recently received the post of “supreme guide,” which, according to recently passed legislation, will be consulted "on questions about safeguarding national independence, on strengthening patriotism and on national unity.”

  • Malawian president Peter Mutharika could point to the pandemic in order to cancel a rerun of the presidential election in July. Mutharika has been resisting the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn his reelection win in 2019 due to massive irregularities. He appealed the decision and refused to ratify new election legislation, arguing that it contradicted the constitution. Mutharika, who won with only 38.5 percent of the vote last year, faces a unified opposition and is now required to secure more than 50 percent majority to keep his job. He may find it convenient to postpone the election if he assesses that he could lose the race. Even though there has not been a confirmed case, Mutharika has already declared a “national disaster,” closing schools and banning public gatherings. As one political analyst told the Mail and Guardian newspaper, “the situation is now life and death for the politicians.”

  • Ivorian president Alassane Ouattara might have second thoughts about elections in October if his party’s candidate falls ill from the coronavirus or if a quarantine remains in place in Abidjan, the commercial capital. Ouattara, who repeatedly flirted with the idea of running for a third term, committed in early March to “transfer power to a new generation.” He does not want his rivals, former leaders Henri Bedie and Laurent Gbagbo, to return to the presidency. However, his preferred successor, Prime Minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly, is self-isolating because he had contact with a person who tested positive for coronavirus. If Coulibaly’s health situation deteriorates, Ouattara’s calculus for staying the course on the election could change. Similarly, the president could postpone the election if Abidjan remains under quarantine. In a recent interview, he shared that he has often asked himself, “if we can’t restore security, would it be in my country’s interest to leave?”

  • President Roch Marc Kabore of Burkina Faso could argue that it is not possible to hold presidential elections in November in the face of a spiraling health crisis and a deadly Islamist insurgency. Burkina Faso has the second-largest COVID-19 outbreak in sub-Saharan Africa after South Africa. The virus has paralyzed the government, afflicting six ministers and contributing to the death of a senior National Assembly leader. In addition, Burkina Faso is under siege from near-daily extremist attacks. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, there has been a nearly 650 percent increase in “violence against civilians” between 2018 and 2019. While Kabore currently faces a divided opposition, he may conclude that it is impossible to hold elections under such grave conditions.

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

Sub-Saharan African countries, like countries in other parts of the world, have a tough decision ahead of them. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of holding or delaying elections. The United Kingdom, following expert medical advice, chose to hold off on local and mayoral elections until May 2021. In contrast, French president Emmanuel Macron insisted on nationwide municipal elections earlier this month to “assure democratic continuity in the country.” If an African government resolves to have an election, the government and its external partners should consider the following measures:

  • Secure Interparty and Institutional Consensus. It is essential to reach an agreement across the political spectrum and garner institutional support on the disposition of the election. When then-president Ellen Sirleaf Johnson of Liberia pushed for senatorial elections in December 2014, she received concurrence from political opponents and the country’s high court.

  • Rethink Voter Registration. It is worthwhile to explore alternative sites and processes for voter registration. African governments could leverage mobile money platforms or nascent digital identity initiatives for voter authentication. Online payment platforms like M-Pesa have more security and can be independently verified. Only three of the 16 countries with upcoming elections have partially developed a digital identity national system, according to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Omidyar Network. However, many countries now require that prepaid SIM cards only be activated when registered with a proof of identity, presenting an imperfect fix to this challenge.

  • Protect Internet Access. It is critical to safeguard access to the internet and cellular networks before, during, and after the election. African governments are increasingly shutting down the internet, especially during elections, as Guinea did in mid-March. According to Access Now, internet shutdowns in Africa grew by 47 percent compared to 2018. If a country decides to proceed with an election, governments should pledge to maintain access to the internet and consider relaxing tariffs on internet usage to ensure voters receive updates on polling station locations, sanitary guidelines, and ballot box procedures.

  • Unleash Fact-Checking Services. It is incumbent on governments, civil society, and foreign partners to promote fact-checking services to mitigate the risks of virtual campaigning. African politicians, who already use social media during elections, will probably accelerate their transition to mobile phones and the internet if restrictions on public gatherings remain in effect. A Nigerian communication and technology specialist informed a joint UK and Nigerian research team that “the old men of the political parties may not have a full grasp of how [WhatsApp] works, but they understand the importance of it.” While this mode of campaigning is effective because messages are shared between friends and acquaintances, there is considerable need to fund nonprofit watchdog organizations that promote accuracy and counter disinformation.
  • Increase Poll Workers. It is imperative to hire or recruit additional poll workers to ensure social distancing, conduct onsite temperature taking, and modify polling station layouts. In France’s recent election, poll clerks wore latex gloves, offered disinfectant, and marked out lanes with arrows on the floor showing where people should stand. Similarly, in Liberia in 2014, health workers greeted voters at the polling stations and sequestered individuals with a high temperature to cast their ballots in a separate area. Africa’s external partners should step up to provide personal protective equipment and other medical supplies, as well as specialized training for electoral management bodies.

  • Consider New Voting Procedures. It is important to consider alternative voting options—voting-by-mail, electronic voting, curbside ballot drop-off, early voting—that have become common in some developed countries. During the U.S. democratic primaries, voters relied on early voting and voting-by-mail to turnout in larger numbers. In South Korea, the election commission relaxed its rules to allow voters with COVID-19, as well as people with disabilities or those residing in hospitals, nursing homes, and detention centers, to vote outside of a polling station. Some of these alternatives may not be ideal for an African setting, where academics warn autocrats could find new opportunities for corruption and indulge in election rigging. Nonetheless, approximately one-quarter of African countries already allow their diaspora to vote abroad and displaced persons have cast ballots in refugee and internally displaced person camps in Burkina Faso, Liberia, Nigeria, and Mali. It is also possible to stagger elections over multiple days to reduce the number of voters at each polling station.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Judd Devermont