Conducting elections amid the coronavirus pandemic presents a challenge in several African countries, according to analysts.
More than 20 countries are scheduled to hold presidential, parliamentary or municipal elections on the continent.
How it is being done
Tanzanians are scheduled to vote for their next president and parliament members in October.
The Ivory Coast presidential vote due in October. Burkina Faso’s presidential and parliamentary elections are slated for November while Ghana’s is expected in December.
With 1,252,552 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 29,833 deaths on the continent as of Aug. 31, and cases still climbing, countries preparing for polls face a balancing act — to go ahead or postpone the vote, analysts said.
The electoral commission in Ghana last week was yet to open nominations for political parties to file candidacies for the presidential and parliamentary race.
The ruling New Patriotic Party (NPP) and National Democratic Congress (NDC) are said to be the main contenders in the elections.
The commission is yet to announce how the campaigns will be conducted.
But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, usual campaign rallies may not be allowed.
Parties are campaigning virtually through different platforms in what has been dubbed “scientific campaigns.”
Political parties, which recently launched manifestoes, did them virtually.
Unlike previously, when candidates picked hard copy nomination forms from the electoral commission, COVID-19 pandemic candidates’ nomination this year forms will be filled and submitted online, the commission announced.
Ghana concluded a biometric registration exercise Aug. 6 under strict observance of safety protocols at registration centers.
Every voter at registration centers had to wear a face mask, sanitize hands and ensure physical distancing.
About 15 million Ghanaians were registered to take part in the Dec. 7 election.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a Kampala-based researcher on politics and public affairs said a “scientific campaign” has complications because not all citizens have access to the internet, radio and television.
“Therefore there is a degree to which a scientific campaign will disenfranchise some citizens. But maybe this is a fairly acceptable cost to pay for a risk of massive infection,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“It is very difficult to see how any electoral commission can deliver a credible election in the circumstances [of a scientific campaign] unless in the country a choice is made to hold a conventional campaign as we have always known, where people address rallies and people don’t take precautions,” he said.
Burundi held a general election May 20 to elect a president and Members of Parliament amid concerns of coronavirus, leading to accusations of risking the lives of citizens.
Guinea and Mali also conducted polls in March and April, respectively.
Malawi’s presidential elections took place June 23, to name but a few.
Golooba-Mutebi said while the easiest solution is to delay the elections, there is uncertainty about how long COVID-19 will remain, “which opens doors for incumbents to stay in power indefinitely.”
Canvassing vs. virtual campaign
The Tanzanian electoral commission approved 15 candidates to run for president, its elections board recently announced.
The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi party launched a re-election campaign Saturday for President John Magufuli in the capital, Dodoma.
Magufuli will face 14 challengers in in October.
About 29.2 million Tanzanians have registered to vote.
By stark contrast, candidates in Tanzania are going ahead with canvassing and personal interaction with voters.
“In Tanzania the campaigning is not going to be any different because they are going ahead with conventional campaigning not different from previous elections, except wearing face masks for those who choose to do so,” said Golooba-Mutebi.
Voices for delaying elections vs. going ahead
To Ismael Buchanan, senior lecturer at the department of political science at the University of Rwanda, delaying the elections would be the right thing to do rather than risk the lives of citizens.
He believes campaigning, overcrowding at polling stations and contact with infected surfaces could lead to mass infections.
“Even if countries decide to use the media in campaigning, it is clear that preparing for elections in this period will be definitely very difficult where movement is restricted. So better to delay it,” he told Anadolu Agency.
On the possibility of a constitutional crisis, where the terms of leaders could expire without successors in case of delayed election, Buchanan said it should be acknowledged that COVID-19 has disrupted the normal way of doing things.
“Well, each country needs to weigh its own circumstance and ability to hold an election while safeguarding the health and ballots of its voters. But in order to not undermine our democracy despite the restrictions of the pandemic my proposition is that the election can be held as soon as the pandemic is under control,” he said.
According to Anthony Banbury, the chief executive of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, lessons learned from Liberia’s successful election in 2014 amid the Ebola outbreak are relevant today as governments around the world face the common threat posed by COVID-19.
In a recent opinion piece, Banbury argued that elections are possible in dangerous public health conditions if officials cooperate with health, security and other key authorities.
“Elections are imperative to protect democratic rights at a time when significant state power is being concentrated in the executive branch through the exercise of powerful emergency measures. Elections must be preserved in times of crisis, as they anchor public trust in national institutions and hold public officials accountable,” he said.