How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting elections in Africa?

As COVID-19 spreads in the continent, Ethiopia postpones August vote while Guinea goes ahead with disputed referendum.

Election workers start the counting of ballots during the second round of Guinea Bissau''s presidential election in Bissau
Ethiopia postponed its election scheduled from August while Malawi is expected to hold a poll on July 2 [File - Christophe Van Der Perre/Reuters]

Back in February, things did not look too promising for Peter Mutharika, Malawi’s 79-year-old president.

The country’s constitutional court had just annulled the May 2019 vote that declared him the winner by a narrow margin, citing widespread “irregularities”.

The ruling followed weeks of street protests calling for Mutharika to step aside and concede defeat. On several occasions when the police and demonstrators clashed, the army stepped in and, surprisingly, protected the protesters.

With the court ordering a vote rerun within 150 days, the momentum was on the side of the opposition. Mutharika’s chances of winning a second five-year term appeared slim.

Then on February 14, 11 days after the court ruling, Egypt became the first country in Africa to confirm a case of COVID-19, the highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.

A month later, before Malawi had recorded any infections, Mutharika shut down schools and banned large public gatherings – effectively putting a stop to election campaigning. Experts now believe it could be a matter of time before the poll, scheduled for July 2, is delayed and Mutharika buys himself more time in office.

“A postponement of these elections for primarily public health reasons seems likely as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across southern Africa,” Alex Vines, director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.

“This will obviously disappoint the opposition, but is clearly in Malawian national interest,” he added.

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As of April 13, Malawi had 13 COVID-19 cases, including two deaths. Across the continent, more than 14,520 infections and 788 fatalities had been reported in more than 50 countries, while the number of recoveries stood at 2,570.

The confirmed figures in Africa are still fairly low compared to other parts of the world, including Europe and the United States, where the coronavirus pandemic has spread wildly, overwhelmed healthcare systems and upended daily life, including politics.

Already, several scheduled elections in Western countries – from local polls in parts of the United Kingdom and France to several Democratic primaries in the US ahead of November’s presidential vote – have been delayed due to the pandemic.

This also happened in Ethiopia.

Home to almost 110 million people, Ethiopia reported its first COVID-19 case on March 13. It soon shut its borders and banned public gatherings to curb the spread of the disease – and then went a step further. On March 31, the electoral board announced the postponement of August’s highly anticipated general election “because of issues related to the coronavirus”.

It said a new date would be given “when the pandemic is over”.

Not a surprise

The polls would have been both Abiy Ahmed’s first electoral run since his 2018 appointment and last year’s Nobel Peace Prize win, as well as a key test of the sweeping political and economic reforms he has introduced since taking office.

But analysts say the postponement did not come as a surprise.

“A delay was almost inevitable because of the potential risks of spreading the virus. Elections involve human-to-human interaction so holding one when there is an outbreak would have been very risky,” William Davison, a senior Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al Jazeera.

Opposition parties said they supported the reason behind the postponement but expressed dissatisfaction with the way the decision was reached.

“We believe that the process the board has followed to reach its decision is wrong, and yet another manifestation of part of a troubling pattern,” the Oromo Liberation Front and Oromo Federalist Congress parties said in a joint statement.

“Decisions about the new election date and issues related to that should be made after sufficient consultation and consensus among all parties and stakeholders,” the statement added.

But experts say the delay in the poll could be a positive development that would allow electoral authorities to better organise the voting process in Africa’s second-most populous nation.

“The electoral board was struggling to meet deadlines before the delay,” Davison said. “What this tragic opportunity presents is more time for the electoral board to better prepare in terms of registering voters and recruiting staff,” he added.

“For the opposition, this delay gives them more time to be organised, join forces and be less fragmented. Abiy could benefit from this delay the same way as the opposition. Who benefits the most will depend on who uses this time productively,” he added.

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Conversely, on the other side of the continent, Guinea went to the polls in late March to elect members of parliament and vote on a proposed constitutional reform against a backdrop of street protests and despite the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.

The country’s opposition boycotted the long-delayed poll, accusing President Alpha Conde of planning to use the constitutional referendum to extend his stay in office. According to experts, the outbreak played into the hands of Guinea’s 82-year-old leader.

“COVID-19 lockdown in West Africa meant that a high-level delegation by ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] to Conakry before the referendum did not occur,” Vines said, referring to the West African regional bloc.

“Efforts by West African leaders aimed at stopping the referendum on constitutional reform by Guinean President Alpha Conde partly failed because of COVID-19 lockdown across the region.”

Guinea had reported at least two COVID-19 cases before the referendum, which was overwhelmingly backed by voters and enacted last week.

The new constitution still limits the president to two terms but it does not apply retrospectively, meaning Conde could seek another term in office in the upcoming election, scheduled for December.

Besides Guinea, other African countries with elections due to take place later this year include Burundi, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Niger, Tanzania, Togo and Seychelles. 

Meanwhile, as the pandemic takes a firmer hold on the continent, elections scheduled for next year could also be affected.

In Somalia, opposition leaders have warned the government not use the outbreak to postpone the 2021 vote.

While in Uganda, the country’s High Court has been petitioned to delay next year’s vote for five years as Kampala grabbles with the outbreak. No decision has been made on the petition by a “concerned citizen”.

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

Source: Al Jazeera