Updated: Jul 6, 2020
On 19 April 2020, a woman votes during the legislative elections in Mali. Credits: Yeclo.com
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) has taken the world by storm. Minute by minute, we’re assaulted with content on the spread of the virus and its health challenges, how countries are or should be responding to prevent the spread and flatten the curve, and its immediate and future social, economic, and political implications. The virus has started spreading in Africa, with a varied range of responses from governments (from lockdowns to some declaring a state of emergency). From a public health perspective, such actions are indeed necessary, but what about from a political standpoint, especially in West Africa, already mired in some sort of political and security crisis, and where several crucial elections are upcoming?
In West Africa, five presidential elections (Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Burkina Faso and the 1st round in Niger) should take place in the last quarter of 2020 and two (excluding the 2nd round in Niger) in the first quarter of 2021 (Benin and The Gambia). Contrary to legislative and local elections that are “easier” to postpone as it has been the case across the sub-region and beyond in recent years (e.g., Guinea, Mali, Chad, Cameroon, and Senegal), postponing presidential elections significantly increases political debates and contestations. Also, in some of these countries (Niger, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea), presidents are ending their 2nd term and postponing elections would be perceived as term elongation in disguise and can lead to violence. Finally, many of the countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and The Gambia) are already facing security and political tensions that can be compounded by the decision to go ahead or to postpone the presidential elections ahead. With the added burden of a public health crisis through COVID-19, what are the perspectives and what should countries pay close attention to?
If some countries decide to postpone the planned presidential elections, it would be critical for them to begin a political dialogue as soon as possible to ensure collaborative approaches to decision making around the electoral timeline. The discussion should address preparatory electoral activities including voter registration, procurement processes, campaigning measures as well as the decision on the new dates for the elections themselves. Regional bodies such as ECOWAS and UNOWAS can facilitate the dialogue processes in some countries (e.g., Guinea) already going through political tension and instability. This support would ensure that states do not spiral into protracted political conflict amid a health crisis with the COVID-19.
If some countries decide to postpone the planned presidential elections, it would be critical for them to begin a political dialogue as soon as possible to ensure collaborative approaches to decision making around the electoral timeline.
In the case, however, some other countries maintain their electoral calendar despite the public health crisis; it is imperative to introduce unique health and safety measures as examples from across the world have shown. For instance, in Israel, electoral officials wore protective clothing and polling stations were set up in plastic sheeting for voters who had returned from COVID affected countries. In South Korea, “voters will be expected to wash their hands before going to the polling station and have masks and ID cards ready. Also, voters are to keep a safe distance from others as well as refraining from discussions in or outside the polling station”. In other countries, citizens will vote via postal services. In addition, the USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published recommendations for election polling stations as a result of COVID-19. The guidelines include preventative actions for election officials and the general public in advance and during election day. It also contains recommendations for handling postal ballots.
These tools and best-case practices will be useful to governments in West Africa and can be adapted to our context, as they prepare for upcoming elections. Civil Society in the region equally has a critical role to play in documenting and calling attention to measures that would violate civil and political rights.
Civil Society in the region equally has a critical role to play in documenting and calling attention to measures that would violate civil and political rights.
Ultimately, being prepared will be crucial. Electoral officials, governments, and opposition all need to begin to think about best-practice pathways to not only ensure the integrity of the electoral process, preserve public health and wellbeing, but ensure that our countries do not spiral into violence and conflict.
Originally published by OSIWA: http://www.osiwa.org/newsroom/blog/elections-in-the-time-of-covid-19-what-can-west-africans-do-to-prepare/
By Nadia AHIDJO-IYA, Program Coordinator & Mathias HOUNKPE, Program Manager at OSIWA.