Protect the vote, or the voter? In African elections, no easy choice.

Why We Wrote This

Public health and the health of democracy: In theory, they’d go hand in hand. But in countries where both are unstable, the pandemic is raising thorny questions about how elections should go forward – if at all.

Ernest Mwale/Reuters
Malawians queue to vote in a re-run of a discredited presidential election in Thyolo, Malawi, June 23, 2020.

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Across the world, the COVID-19 crisis has introduced a new wrinkle into the already complicated business of holding an election. Traditional campaigning, after all, is built on closeness – handshaking and posing for photos and the show of strength that is a mass rally. Voting itself often forces people into proximity.

Across Africa, the stakes are especially high. On a continent where many health systems are fragile and transfers of power often tenuous, the balance between public health and democracy has been particularly hard to strike. Some countries, like Ethiopia, have canceled or pushed back votes – prompting cries of foul play from critics who say it’s a pretext to cling to power. Some, like Benin and Mali, have held elections while attempting to enforce social distancing rules. And still others, like Malawi – where citizens vote today – have charged ahead full speed, insisting the show must go on.

In the end, experts say, the most important thing is not necessarily whether or not an election is held, but how the decision is reached in either case.

“It’s the transparency of what you choose in either case, and who has a say in making it happen,” says Emmaculate Liaga, a visiting researcher at the University of Basel.

The crowd gathered in Kasungu, stretched down its main street and bunched around a small stage. Some wore sky-blue skirts and dresses emblazoned with the face of Peter Mutharika, the country’s president. Others waved handkerchiefs or flyers stamped with four ears of corn – the logo of his political party, the Democratic Progressive Party. Shoulder to shoulder, they jostled for a view of his black SUV.

As it parted the crowd, they cheered and ululated. Soon he was onstage, promising in a booming voice that his second term would bring a raft of good fortune to this town in central Malawi.

It looks like a scene from another era, before social distancing made gatherings like this a near-impossibility in many parts of the world. But this rally was filmed in mid-June, as Malawi entered the final run-up to its election – held today.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Across the world, the COVID-19 crisis has introduced a new wrinkle into the already complicated business of holding an election. Traditional campaigning, after all, is built on closeness – handshaking and posing for photos and the show of strength that is a mass rally. And voting itself often forces people to scrunch together in queues, touching the same polling-place door handles and touch screens and ink pads. How do you do that when experts say touch and breath could spread a deadly disease?

Across Africa, the stakes are especially high. On a continent where many health systems are fragile and transfers of power often tenuous, the balance between public health and democracy has been particularly hard to strike. In some countries, like Ethiopia, governments have canceled or pushed back elections, often prompting cries of foul play from their opposition, who argue those in power are using the pretext of a pandemic to cling to power. Some, like Benin and Mali, have tried to walk a middle line, holding elections while attempting – with mixed success – to enforce rules about masks and social distancing. And in still others, like Burundi and Malawi, elections have charged forward full speed, ignoring all advice to the contrary, insisting that in democracy the show must go on.

“The problem is we are in an election period and our colleagues on the other side are also defying the [country’s public health] guidelines [prohibiting large gatherings]. They are saying something and doing the opposite,” says Joseph Chidanti-Malunga, spokesperson for the United Transformation Movement, an opposition party in Malawi. “If government itself is not obeying, what’s the opposition going to do?”

The short answer: Hold rallies, shake hands, campaign as normal. “Let’s all go and vote,” shouted Lazarus Chakwera, the candidate for the opposition Tonse Alliance, at a mass rally filmed in the town of Karonga on June 10. “We are going to have elections whether someone likes it or not,” he bellowed to loud cheers.

Eldson Chagara/Reuters
Opposition supporters celebrate after a court annulled the May 2019 presidential vote that declared Peter Mutharika a winner, in Lilongwe, Malawi, Feb. 4, 2020.

Historic decision

Malawi’s election was fraught long before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. The vote was originally held in May of last year, with Dr. Mutharika declared the winner. But the opposition cried foul, saying that Tipp-Ex correction fluid had been used to alter results from several polling stations, and that others were faked or duplicated. In February, the country’s Constitutional Court nullified the 2019 vote and called for a fresh election – only the second time that a court in sub-Saharan Africa has done so.

Then came a pandemic.

On March 20, before Malawi had a single confirmed case of COVID-19, President Mutharika ordered schools closed and banned gatherings of more than 100 people. The country’s first three confirmed cases were announced on April 2. The government then announced a lockdown, but protests erupted, and the High Court ordered it could not be implemented until it included measures to protect poor people. Today, Malawi has 803 confirmed cases and 11 deaths.

Despite a widespread lack of testing, members of both government and the opposition have downplayed the significance of the country’s outbreak, and the dangers associated with holding an election during it.

Similar attitudes emerged in Burundi ahead of its May 20 national election. Jean-Claude Karerwa Ndenzako, spokesperson for the country’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, explained to the BBC that Burundi had “signed a special pact with God” that would protect it from the coronavirus.

Just before the vote, Burundi’s government expelled four World Health Organization representatives coordinating a response to the coronavirus.

Then, three weeks after the election – which was won in disputed circumstances by Mr. Nkurunziza’s favored successor, Évariste Ndayishimiye – the former president died suddenly.

Officially, the cause was cardiac arrest. But his wife had already been treated in Kenya for a suspected case of COVID-19, and diplomats told the Financial Times that they believed Mr. Nkurunziza had likely been infected as well.

For experts, the president’s death underscored the dangers of pandemic denial. Officially the country has only 144 cases and one death, but the true figure is suspected to be far higher.

“Burundi was a huge lesson – that in a basic way you must respect that there is a global public health crisis,” says Olufunto Akinduro, a senior program officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance who studies African elections. “When you deny that, this is what can happen.”

For Mr. Nkurunziza, downplaying the pandemic was part of a tool kit to skew the election in his party’s favor that also included the arrest, torture, and disappearance of opposition members and human rights activists, and vote rigging.

“There is no playbook here to fall back on” when holding an election during the COVID-19 crisis, says Comfort Ero, program director for Africa at the International Crisis Group. “But it is clear that done poorly it can provoke further tensions in already fraught and fragile situations.” 

Clovis Guy Siboniyo/Reuters
Voters queue at a polling station during the presidential, legislative, and communal council elections amid simmering political violence and the growing threat of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ngozi, Burundi, May 20, 2020.

Whose call?

But steamrolling over a public health crisis to hold an election is not the only way governments can use the pandemic to their political advantage, Ms. Ero notes.

Other countries have postponed their elections, arguing that they cannot prepare or hold them safely. These concerns are often well placed, says Ms. Akinduro. The pandemic, after all, makes even processes like the importation of ballot papers or the presence of international observers far more difficult.

But in some cases, members of the political opposition, as well as human rights defenders, have protested, saying that the delays seem calculated to keep the ruling party in power.

In Ethiopia, for instance, the general election originally scheduled for August was to be the first since reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in April 2018, promising to promote democracy in the rigidly autocratic state.

But ethnic violence had marred the lead-up to the vote, and in late March, shortly after Ethiopia’s first cases of coronavirus were confirmed, Mr. Abiy announced the election would be postponed. In May, he extended that postponement indefinitely, meaning that his government could still be in power when its mandate expires in October.

In Uganda, meanwhile, the government of Yoweri Museveni, who has been president since 1986, has said it will go ahead with a general election next year – but bar all campaign rallies. There, like in many African countries, rallies are one of the few ways for opposition candidates to reach many voters, who may not have access to the internet, and whose TV and radio options may be limited to government-controlled stations.

“Even without a pandemic, the incumbent has the advantage,” says Ms. Ero. “The crucial thing now is to make sure restrictions don’t give the authorities blanket authority and inhibit political space and free speech.”

In the end, experts say, the most important thing is not necessarily whether or not an election is held – but how the decision is reached.

“It’s the transparency of what you choose in either case, and who has a say in making it happen,” says Emmaculate Liaga, a visiting researcher at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Back in Malawi, daily mass rallies by both the president’s Democratic Progressive Party and the opposition Tonse Alliance continued full speed in the run-up to today’s vote, despite warnings from the country’s health authorities.

“Unfortunately, [political parties’] behavior during this campaign period has taken us backwards,” says Dr. Charles Mwansambo, chief of health services at Malawi’s Ministry of Health. “We stand to lose more than what we will gain.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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