Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
Zambian President Edgar Lungue (center) greets his supporters after he officially opened a terminal at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka, Zambia, Aug. 9, 2021. The president is seeking a second term in a general election on Aug. 12 after a campaign held under COVID-19 restrictions that critics say have penalized the main opposition candidate, Hakainde Hichilema.

How COVID-19 restrictions on rallies are roiling elections in Africa

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Governments around the world have faced the challenge of holding elections during the COVID-19 pandemic, and many have chosen to delay polls. Others have gone ahead but taken extra precautions, such as limiting the size of political rallies and enforcing social distancing in polling stations.

Zambia is the latest African democracy to go to the polls during the pandemic. Thursday’s poll follows a campaign held under strict limits that effectively handicap the main opposition candidate, while President Edgar Lungu, who is seeking a second elected term, rallied his supporters at government-sponsored events that sidestepped the restrictions. 

Why We Wrote This

Holding elections during a pandemic is a challenge, particularly for young democracies in Africa. Restrictions on gatherings aimed at curbing infections can impinge on democratic freedoms.

Experts point out that the same kinds of measures that protect public health – limiting public gatherings, discouraging travel – also make it difficult for candidates to get their message to voters, potentially skewing turnout and results. And the line between legitimate concern for public health and politicians trying to swing the vote in their favor is blurry. 

These restrictions have “limited the opposition’s access to the voters, which in the long run provided advantage to the ruling party,” says Fumba Chama, a Zambian hip-hop artist and human rights activist.

Going into Thursday’s election, Zambian President Edgar Lungu has drawn from a classic playbook for swinging the vote his way. His government has intimidated opposition candidates, shut down independent media outlets, and purged the electoral roll to favor the ruling party’s strongholds.

But Mr. Lungu, who has held power since 2015, now has a new tool – campaign restrictions in the name of protecting Zambians against COVID-19.

Since March 2020, governments around the world have wrestled with the challenge of staging elections in a pandemic. At least 78 countries postponed elections between March 2020 and June 2021, including 14 in Africa, according to a report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Others have gone ahead but taken extra precautions, such as limiting the size of political rallies and enforcing social distancing in polling stations.

Why We Wrote This

Holding elections during a pandemic is a challenge, particularly for young democracies in Africa. Restrictions on gatherings aimed at curbing infections can impinge on democratic freedoms.

And that, experts say, is where things get thorny, because the same kinds of measures that protect public health also make it difficult for opposition candidates in particular to get their message to voters, potentially skewing turnout and results. And the line between legitimate concern for public health and politicians trying to swing the vote in their favor can often be a blurry one. 

“COVID regulations have been a gift to the world’s dictators, and one they’ve received with open arms,” says Laura Miti, a civil society activist in Zambia.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where many democracies were young and fragile to begin with, the risk of instability associated with unbalanced elections is especially high. In late 2020, Freedom House reported that democracy and human rights protections had deteriorated in more than two dozen African countries since the start of the pandemic, part of a “crisis for democracy around the world” touched off by COVID-19.

Zambia, a landlocked southern African country of 18 million, was among them. Mr. Lungu banned campaign rallies, a measure that penalized opposition candidates since the president has continued to draw crowds of his supporters to events billed as face mask distribution, sidestepping the ban.   

“What will it benefit you to be holding rallies, but then sacrifice the lives of our citizens and voters to COVID-19 and death?” Mr. Lungu asked a gathering of his supporters in May; at the same event he announced the blanket ban on election rallies.

Police have since broken up rallies held by Mr. Lungu’s main challenger, Hakainde Hichilema, using tear gas and rubber bullets.

Crossing a line   

But while some restrictions on public gathering and movement may be justified to limit the spread of COVID-19, experts say that they have clearly crossed a line into choking the democratic process.

“The truth is that if this were really about COVID, you’d have alternative platforms set up for everyone, equally,” says Ms. Miti, who runs a nongovernmental organization in Lusaka called the Alliance for Community Action. “The rules wouldn’t just be applied to one side.”

Similar scenes have played out in other elections in the region since the beginning of the pandemic.

Last year Ethiopia postponed a national election for more than a year, to June 2021, over what it claimed were COVID-19 public health concerns. Many in the opposition disagreed, and one region, Tigray, decided to flout the national government by holding its local elections anyway. That, in turn, helped touch off a conflict between Tigray and the national government that has since escalated into a civil war.

In Uganda, meanwhile, security forces killed more than 50 people last November during protests over the arrest of opposition candidate Bobi Wine for violating COVID-19 protocols on rally size. Mr. Wine lost the election in January to President Yoweri Museveni, who won a sixth term. And during Burundi’s election last year, the government sprang a last-minute requirement on regional observers that they quarantine for 14 days, effectively ensuring none were present.

But delaying voting doesn’t always mean rolling back democracy.

South Africa, for instance, announced in July that it was postponing local government elections set for October, arguing that lockdowns had made it difficult for candidates to mobilize voters, and that turnout might be lower than expected because of COVID-19 concerns, limiting citizens’ access to their democracy. Although political parties sparred over the decision, the majority of South Africans supported it, regardless of their political leanings, according to a local poll.

Rogan Ward/Reuters/File
Presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema casts his ballot at a voting station in Lusaka, Zambia, Jan. 20, 2015. Mr. Hichilema is trying again to unseat President Edgar Lungu in an election on Aug. 12, 2021.

In Zambia, however, the vote is going ahead on Thursday under COVID-19 restrictions, which observers say could be the deciding factor in swinging the election toward the incumbent. In the last election, in 2015, Mr. Lungu won the poll – also against Mr. Hichilema – by a margin of less than 2 percentage points, and a recent survey by the polling organization Afrobarometer found that support for the ruling Patriotic Front has tumbled over the last four years.

But many observers suspect that the ways in which Mr. Lungu has tinkered with the vote – including coronavirus-related restrictions – will still be enough to swing the results in his favor.

These restrictions have “limited the opposition’s access to the voters, which in the long run provided advantage to the ruling party,” says Fumba Chama, a Zambian hip-hop artist and human rights activist who goes by the stage name PilAto.

Should no candidate win more than 50% of votes cast this week, a runoff election must be held within 37 days. But the candidates will still face the restrictions on public association and that, say analysts, could be enough to put Mr. Lungu back in for another term.

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