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Elections during the pandemic

October 27th, 2020
topic:Election
by:Frank Odenthal
located in:Tanzania, USA, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Korea, South, Belarus, Ghana, Burundi
tags:COVID-19, democracy, digitalisation, elections

It is not easy to have safe and fair elections. And a pandemic like COVID-19 doesn't make things easier. But not only the USA is having difficulties running elections in times of coronavirus. Many unstable or not fully developed democracies in Africa will soon have major elections on the agenda. FairPlanet had a word with Nic Cheeseman, who served as an electoral observer in many African countries.

FairPlanet: What are the major threats for safe elections during Covid-19?

Nic Cheeseman: Elections often involve a number of things like, for example, rallies that bring people together in large numbers. And obviously voting itself often sees large queues which bring together people in large numbers. These are all processes that might spread Covid-19.

At the same time another risk is that if we see controversial elections or flawed elections, and then we see electoral protests or violence, which of course is another way in which Covid-19 can spread. So there is a kind of direct risk generated by lots of people coming together, and then I suppose an indirect risk that elections will trigger forms of instability and that will spread the virus.

In this context, it is worth saying that the risk from meetings is perhaps particularly significant in some ways in Africa, because in the African context mass rallies are much more common. We know from the research of Dan Paget that more people attend rallies in countries like Tanzania than almost anywhere else in the world; some surveys show us that the majority of citizens actually attend a rally during an election, unlike, say, Europe where the majority of citizens will definitely not attend a rally during an election. So the risk that there will be much higher levels of attendance at those rallies where Covid-19 could spread more quickly.

But that is not necessarily a reason not to hold elections, because we have seen elections held successfully in Africa during Covid-19. For example the Malawian election did not seem to lead to a radical increase in the Covid-19 rate. So perhaps in African states like Malawi, the fact that the virus has been relatively contained until now means that despite mass rallies elections will not have a really problematic impact on the spread of Covid-19.

In your report for the British Academy you mentioned three factors that are important for safe and democratic elections: transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness. Could you explain that in more detail, please?

Well, in terms of having democratic elections, those factors don‘t just apply to elections during a pandemic, they apply to all elections. One of the biggest risks around an election is that a certain community or leader is excluded. Then you have an exclusive election rather that an inclusive one. As soon as you have exclusion, the risk is that a certain section of the population doesn't feel part of the country or part of the political system or part of the electoral process. And as soon as that happens the risk of a conflict and controversy around an election significantly increases.

Obviously in terms of accountability, you always want all of your political systems and processes to have as much accountability as is feasible, because that‘s what makes leaders follow the rules, that‘s what ensures that you have better development programs.

So I think in general these are kind of principles for good government and for elections in general whether in the Covid period or not. In the context of Covid, what we need to think about also is that decisions around elections can either be made exclusively, so the president can say “the elections are now deferred to a later date” unilaterally, or she can say “we need a national dialogue on when it is best to hold elections”.

For example in Ethiopia the elections have been postponed, in Uganda the president has said that it‘s going to be a digital election and there won‘t be rallies, there will be an election that is “scientific” – it will be online only.

Now these statements by leaders have been rejected by the opposition as being exclusionary: they were not made in consultation with opposition parties, they were not designed in ways that made them participatory, they didn't reflect the concerns or interests of opposition parties. And so the process by which these decisions were made, the fact that the process wasn‘t seen to be inclusive and accountable, has itself become controversial.

It is a challenge, but one that can be surmounted.

One of the recommendations of the report mentioned above is to have more polling stations and therefore more polling workers in place. Could that be a problem for example in African countries with large sparsely populated areas and shortage of funding of electoral commissions?

It is a challenge, but one that can be surmounted. Many countries in Africa actually have more polling stations than some of their European counterparts. Kenya now has 44,000 polling stations, and they are even trying to get more, so they can reduce the number of people voting in each one, the queues are shorter and it takes less time to count the vote. So I don‘t think that’s necessarily impossible.

Obviously the more people you employ, the more costly it is and the more challenging it is for the electoral commission. Of course, it depends on how effective the electoral commission is, how determined it is to do a good job, and how well funded it is by the government – but this is possible for many African countries.

I think the issue is more whether the electoral commission is starved of funds and authority by the government. Maybe the government doesn't want the electoral commission to do a fantastic job, maybe it doesn't want everybody in opposition areas being able to turn out to vote. Often what is being presented by the government as technical issues are often political issues.

With all these precautions in place, the voting process during a pandemic is likely to take longer. Is that a problem in terms of safety and security concerns during the elections?

I think that is an issue. Sometimes it is possible to have an additional day of voting when vulnerable people can vote, so elderly people, for example, have a day they can vote when other people are not there, so they can vote quicker, easier and more safely. That would extend voting. And of course organising things like social distancing at polling stations potentially increase the time it takes to vote.

But again, this is not insurmountable. In many cases in Africa voters have been shown to be very patient. I remember going to elections where voters have queued for several hours. That is not ideal, but it is something people are willing to do in order to cast their ballot. Of course, the longer the process takes, the more the toll it takes on people, the more tiring it is, the more people may be tempted to stay at home. So this is a concern, but it is a surmountable one.

Is it more likely to cause riots and violence when the voting process takes longer?

I guess certain types of violence are more likely during a pandemic, and certain types are less likely. For example, because the security forces are deployed to enforce lockdowns, we might expect there to be fewer demonstrations – although these are now on the rise again in some countries.

By contrast, certain sorts of protests and violence after elections may become more likely because people of course are feeling the economic effect of the pandemic and are therefore economically frustrated as well as politically frustrated. So I think there‘s sort of a complex trade-off, with certain types of violence becoming more likely, and others less likely.

The most important thing of course is that as long the elections are run in that inclusive and accountable manner, there‘s no reason why any violence should take place, even before or after the election. And of course widespread violence only takes place in a minority of cases.

In the Malawian example that I just gave, there was very little violence. In the case of the recent South Korean election of course there wasn't violence. So really the presence of violence is something that, to an extent, depends on the government. In Belarus we have seen mass demonstrations, because the government manipulated the election and is now persecuting the protesters who are campaigning for the election to be re-run. And that‘s not simply elections “causing” violence, rather violence usually results from a deliberate strategy of the government to try and retain power.

So when we‘re talking about violence at elections, we should actually look at the government and the parties causing violence during the process – it is not something inherent to elections.

I remember going to elections where voters have queued for several hours.

Does a pandemic like the current Covid-19 add possibilities to manipulate elections?

Potentially yes. For example, if you decide to bring on new election rules as a response to the pandemic, like electronic voting, more postal voting etc, sometimes that involves changing the system very late in the day, which does not give election observers and civil society groups time to catch up. Because they don‘t have time to catch up, they don‘t have time to adjust and put in place new plans. And that means that some of the strategies that might be introduced in order to overcome Covid-19 could create new loopholes or opportunities for ruling parties to rig elections. So I think there is a major risk that governments will seek to manipulate the situation.

Look at the example I gave of Uganda. The idea that opposition rallies will be banned while the government can effectively campaign because all of their leaders are of course government officials, and so they can campaign while carrying out their day job. In that context, shutting down rallies really hurts the opposition more than the government. So in a lot of these cases we do see Covid-related rules being manipulated to benefit those in power.

There are recommendations for the electoral management bodies to work hand-in-hand with government authorities like the ministry of health during the pandemic. Isn't there a risk that the electoral authority will lose its independence in the eyes of the voters, and thereby its credibility?

That’s an interesting and perceptive question. In times of a pandemic it is important for the electoral commission and indeed all authorities to cooperate with government and the ministry of health.

On the other hand, as you rightly said, the electoral authorities should not lose their independence or credibility. It might even be necessary for them to speak out and intervene when governments are trying to manipulate elections – for example by misrepresenting what is required to keep people safe. So that‘s a very important trade-off. And of course it‘s a very difficult one, because when you talk about priorities under Covid, where the ministry of health is focusing on health care and health issues, one might think that issues of political manipulation will be less problematic.

But of course even in the United States the situation relating to health and the state of Covid and what Covid means for elections and for rallies is highly controversial. And as soon as Covid itself becomes politicised, any meeting between the electoral commission and the ministry is also going to be politicised.

In terms of international observation of elections, you stated four methods of observing: not to observe at all, to observe like it’s been done before, to use expats or local partners, and to "virtually" observe. Could you explain how a virtual observation of an election works?

Well, let‘s start with what would normally be the case. The normal situation would be that you would get a team of international observers, and they would fly into a country and have some meetings in the capital city. They will be led by a delegation of perhaps some political figures, but will also have professional observers and technocrats, and they will ultimately spread out to different polling stations, observe the elections in the polling stations, watch the elections, and then come back again.

Now, at the minute obviously, especially if the observers are from a country like the UK, where Covid figures are currently going up, it would be very dangerous to send a group of people to Africa, especially if they didn't have the quarantine on both sides. You would risk spreading the virus.

So the idea is, instead of actually sending these people, instead of those foreign observers collecting the data, these missions can work with domestic organisations who are already on the ground. The domestic monitors can collect the data and then share it. You might still need a small number of high-level figures on the ground to lead the international missions, but immediately you would have significantly reduced the size of the mission and hence the risk.

So that is part one. There is also a part two. What we suggest in the report is that rather than duplicating efforts it may be better for domestic and international observers to specialise in certain tasks. For example, if they cannot be as present in a country, one of the things the international community can do is really focus on the digital parts of the electoral process. If we‘re going to have more digital elections, which will be contested online, the international community could virtually monitor the online election – which is of course visible from anywhere in the world.

So the one strategy is to trust domestic groups to collect the data, and the second is to focus more on monitoring online rather than physically. By doing this, you could actually cover a lot of what you need to without incurring the health risks.

But the related point, which I think is just as important, is that at present international observers tend to be more listened to, and given greater prominence, than their domestic counterparts. That seems to me to be something that, in the long-run, we probably want to change. If elections are to be sustainable and locally owned, shouldn’t we want domestic groups to be more important than international ones? After all, how many international groups observe elections in established democracies in Europe? So I think we need to look for ways that domestic and international groups can work together more effectively, and in a greater spirit of partnership. And we could see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make a radical shift towards that. If we need to change protocols anyway, why not use this moment to effect a broader and deeper transformation.

Are there any examples of those new approaches being used already?

A lot of the non-governmental organisations – so not the European Union etc, but organisations like the National Democratic Institute of the United States – these kind of organisations that are funded by governments, but are more like NGOs and do work around the world, they often have more collaborative processes.

For example when domestic election observers do a parallel vote tabulation, which is basically where you create an alternative count of the vote that isn't in the control of the electoral commission, to check that the electoral commission‘s count is correct, they often get funding and training from international NGOs.

So elements of a more partnership-based model are already there. But we need to go much further. In our report we gave an example of the elections in Malawi, where the Commonwealth observer group tried to do basically what we were talking about in terms of remote monitoring by working through civil society groups. They worked with a Malawian group to set up what is called a “situation room”, and people present in that room coordinated across the country for information about the election, and that data was then shared between domestic and international groups. That was an early example and was not on a large scale, but that might serve as a prototype version of what we were talking about.

Is there a best-practice-example of a country in Africa in terms of electoral management processes?

I think Ghana is. Ghana has a well developed civil society, it has a well developed set of election observers, the domestic civil society groups are skilled and experienced and use cutting-edge technology, and they‘re generally seen as being able to do a really good job. Which of course has contributed to Ghana becoming one of Africa’s most democratic countries.

The electoral authorities should not lose their independence credibility

Now that we have had the pandemic for roughly half a year now,what are your experiences with elections held during this period?

Well, the case of Malawi is by far the most positive one. Burundi had a more problematic election, with two things happening. First of all, the government said that international election observers needed to quarantine, but it told them this so late that they couldn't quarantine before the election. So as a result, international observers didn't go. That helped to facilitate an election which was very problematic, very high level of violence and intimidation, but no international observers on the ground to condemn it. So Burundi was really a case where Covid disrupts an election, prevents observers from going, and then perhaps enables the government to get away with it.

At the minute we‘re watching an election in Tanzania unfolding, with voting in October, and one of the things that we can very clearly see is some of the same things happening: we don‘t have a European Union delegation, we don‘t have a Commonwealth delegation, so the major observer groups are not going to be present. We do see a lot of censorship of the media, a lot of pressure and intimidation of the opposition, the government not paying attention to the same regulations they expect the opposition to pay attention to, and so on.

Is there a difference in running an election in the francophone parts of Africa compared to the anglophone parts or others?

What tends to differ is the political system. And that of course means that the election system is different. In Anglophone Africa you have a legacy of the Westminster political system, which means you often have constituency-based first-past-the-post elections for the legislature.

Some of the francophone countries and South Africa employ something more like a proportional representation system. The way that people are elected under proportional representation can be different, the link between the MP and the constituency is broken, whereas it is very strong under the first-past-the-post model. In an Anglophone system the MPs would do a lot more rallies themselves in their constituency as well as the president, because they represent a particular geographical area, and so they need rallies to mobilise support. When there is more a proportional relation system, that link is sometimes removed, so you don‘t get so many rallies by MPs because they‘re elected from a list.

Variations in the political system might also change how many positions you‘re voting for at any one time. Of course, the more positions you‘re voting for, the more complex an election is. Kenya for example has a presidential election and elections for MPs at the same day, but also elections for governors and for senators, and elections for members of the county‘s assembly – all on the same day. So the Kenyan election commission isn't just managing a presidential election, it‘s managing multiple contests at the same time, all of which have different ballot papers. And that of course makes it a little bit more difficult, it means it takes longer for people to vote, and so further complicates the task of holding “Covid elections”.

Mr. Cheeseman, thank you very much for this interview.

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham/UK. He has observed elections in a number of African countries. His book “How To Rig An Election” has recently been published.

Article written by:
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Frank Odenthal
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Tanzania USA Malawi Ethiopia Uganda Kenya Korea, South Belarus Ghana Burundi
And obviously voting itself often sees large queues which bring together people in large numbers. These are all processes that might spread Covid-19.
We know from the research of Dan Paget that more people attend rallies in countries like Tanzania than almost anywhere else in the world.
But that is not necessarily a reason not to hold elections, because we have seen elections held successfully in Africa during Covid-19.