Africa: democracy sick of Covid-19?

Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg is packed. For his last meeting, South African President Cyril Ramophosa thought big. On this day in May 2019, nearly 50,000 people are gathered to listen to his speech before the general elections, yellow and green ANC banners in hand and matching t-shirts. A year later, this scene seems far away. Since then, the Covid-19 has invaded the whole world, including Africa. Crowds, meetings and other mass gatherings, gauges of popularity of a candidate or a party, are unthinkable. The threat of spread of the coronavirus is too great.

Several polls on the program this year are therefore seriously threatened. For leaders, the choice is difficult. Should elections be maintained in the name of democracy but risk the health of citizens? Or play foresight by postponing them, and risk facing accusations of authoritarianism? On both sides, the stakes are crucial.

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Option 1: postponement

Kenya, The Gambia, Tunisia, Uganda, Nigeria and Zambia have chosen to suspend subnational elections. In Ethiopia, the general elections for August were also postponed to a later date. A choice justified by the headache of organizing a poll in the middle of a pandemic, the preparations for which also prove to be very difficult to put in place. In Ghana, voter registration has been delayed. The training of electoral staff, the organization in certain countries of the primaries of the different parties or the purchase of voting equipment … all essential provisions for the proper functioning of an election, today almost mission impossible because of the situation current sanitary.

But the postponement option remains controversial. For the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), “there is a real risk that the pandemic will be used for political ends, including by authoritarian regimes, where the maintenance or the postponement of elections can serve individual political interests, regardless of public safety and security considerations, “read a report. On the continent, repeated postponements, under the guise of security or organizational difficulties, have indeed enabled certain leaders to remain in power. The postponement of the presidential election, for example, allowed the Congolese Joseph Kabila to sleep two more years at the Palace of the Nation.

Read also: Africa: where democracy stumbles

The right in question

A similar situation could be underway in Uganda, where President Yoweri Museveni, head of the country since 1986, seized the High Court to suspend the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for March 2021. A decision calculated for the vice-president of the Democratic Party (DP) Mukasa Mbidde, who was surprised by Ugandan daily life Daily Monitor that no disease like malaria has hitherto prevented any ballot. Above all, the postponement of the presidential election is not provided for in the 1995 Constitution. If article 77 provides for the extension of the mandate of the Parliament for six months in the event of war or emergency, the retention of the head of the The state at the head of the country for the same reasons is not mentioned.

“The postponement of the elections is much more complex than one might think. Because before making any decision, leaders must stick to the laws, says Olufunto Akinduro, head of the program dedicated to Africa of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). And not all legislation is necessarily prepared for the current situation ”. This is the case in Ethiopia, where the general elections of August 30, now canceled, were supposed to renew the deputies, whose terms of office expire on September 30. The government of Abiy Ahmed coming from the Parliament, the legitimacy of his team, and of his power, is then posed.

How to get rid of this puzzle? “We need total transparency on the part of the authorities,” pleads the researcher. National consultation around the elections must be as wide as possible and involve the various political representatives, but also members of the scientific commission, WHO and the African centers for disease prevention and control (Africa CDC). It must lead to suitable legislation, on which officials must communicate as much as possible. Otherwise, the postponement of the elections could become a source of tension and division, ”she said.

Read also: Ethiopia: Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize winner under pressure

Option 2: an election at all costs

If Ethiopia takes this path, other states have preferred to maintain the ballot. Even if it means endangering the health of voters. “Maintaining elections during the Covid-19 era without sufficient protective measures could make voting more difficult, since the electorate, including for the diaspora, may be restricted in movement and may be more reluctant to vote for fear of the virus, which could lead to low voter turnout and, in the end, could call into question the credible nature of the elections, ”read the FIDH report. “Organizing an election is a real challenge at the moment,” admits Olufunto Akinduro. The central question is whether all efforts have been made to protect voters. “

In Burundi, Covid-19 did not get the elections right. The presidential campaign is in full swing, often disregarding any barrier gesture. It led to the victory – provisional for now – of the dolphin of ex-president Pierre Nkurunziza, who died on June 8, Évariste Ndayishimiye. For the IDEA researcher, “the absence of international observers”, whose displacement was not possible due to the global health situation, “questions the legitimacy of the ballot”. A situation that could repeat itself in Tanzania, where the population must elect this year its president and deputies.

Read also: Burundi: elections first, the coronavirus after

From the start of the pandemic, the current head of state, John Magufuli, relied on “divine protection” to fight against the coronavirus, while the count of official Covid-19 cases in the country is still blocked. in 509 cases, for 21 deaths. “If the situation continues to be what we know and the Tanzanian government continues to behave as it does, it means that voter turnout will be low because people will be afraid to go out and vote,” Zitto says. Kabwe, leader of the opposition party Alliance for Change and Transparency in the Pan-African Media VO News.

In Côte d’Ivoire too, “the postponement is not envisaged,” assures Sylvain N’Guessan, director of the Institute of Strategy in Abidjan. “All the parties in the race are preparing for the deadline and the opposition – embodied by the Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) and by the Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) – has indicated that it will not boycott the elections, ”he explains. If the political analyst recognizes that “the sanitary conditions favorable to the elections are not the same in all the regions of the country”, he maintains however that “the uncertainty around the evolution of the pandemic makes difficult the question of a postponement to a fixed date ”. And the political stakes linked to the election, in this country marked by post-electoral violence, make the hypothesis of a postponement unlikely, and very complex. For Sylvain N’Guessan, in the Ivorian context, “maintaining the election is not a calculation of power”, but rather an imperative in a country where the question of elections remains delicate.

Read also: Ivory Coast: Alassane Ouattara by the front door

What other solutions?

In order to maintain democratic life even in times of crisis, some countries are considering other solutions. South Africa, for example, offers deferred voting, where the frail (elderly and disabled) could vote before others. This option, like the temperature measurement of voters when they entered the polling station, was also applied in South Korea last April, for the legislative elections. As a result, the country recorded the highest voter turnout in 30 years, 66.2%. In Mauritius, the provisions relating to proxy voting have been extended, again to reduce the number of people in offices, and to prevent contamination.

In cases where the election is postponed, and where the legitimacy of power is weakened, the legal scientist Arnaud Oulepo offers him the development of “a government of consensus”. “A team of national unity, which reflects the political mosaic of the country in question, and which will replace the elected government, which, even if reinforced by the Constitution, will have lost all legitimacy among the population,” he maintains. An option which he said could apply to Ethiopia. “But there are no ready-made solutions,” he admits. It must be done on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the particularities of each country. The challenges of democracy are not the same in West Africa as in the East of the continent ”. But these territories have at least one thing in common, “the question of elections, says Olufunto Akinduro remains, always, a sensitive subject”.

Read also 2020, a pivotal year for Africa

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