The Coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions brought in to control the spread of the virus have had an enormous effect on populations across Africa. This is especially evident in countries where elections were due to take place. Not only has handling of the pandemic become a key campaign issue but management of electoral processes has been disrupted. While the effect of Covid-19 has varied from country to country, it has undoubtedly become a key factor in elections throughout 2020 and will continue to play an important role in the elections scheduled for the end of this year.
Earlier in the year, it was widely expected that elections would be postponed across the continent, due to Covid-19. On 31st March, Ethiopia became the first African country to announce such a postponement and Somalia followed suit on 29th June, citing security and technical issues, some of which were tied to Covid-19. Although these postponements were largely supported by the international community and the World Health Organisation (WHO), they faced domestic criticism, with opposition parties contending that they unconstitutionally extended the terms of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia and President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed in Somalia. The elections were set to be amongst the most important in both countries’ histories, with Abiy Ahmed seeking to dismantle the ethno-federalist model of government in Ethiopia and it being the first direct popular vote in Somalia since 1969. Accordingly, the postponements increased political and ethnic tensions in both countries. In Somalia, this led to the government reversing its decision; however, it also abandoned the direct popular vote, reverting to an electoral system using special delegates, so as to be able to meet the agreed election timetable. In Ethiopia, such tensions were even more pronounced, and, in light of the Tigray regional government’s decision to proceed with an election – deemed illegal by the central government – it is highly likely that the country will experience widespread unrest until a national election is held next year.
Although there were rumours of other postponements, and some countries were even actively encouraged by the international community to delay votes, no other national elections have been significantly postponed on the continent. The only other postponements have been for by-elections and municipal elections. While delaying such votes has not generally been as problematic, it has similarly heightened political tensions in some countries, including Angola. However, unlike in Ethiopia and Somalia, the decision to postpone the election in Angola did not have international support. It appears that the ruling Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) has used the pandemic as an excuse to delay long-awaited municipal elections, so as maintain its monopoly over local government structures. Nevertheless, the postponement has intensified political divisions in the country and led to violent anti-government demonstrations in the capital, Luanda.
It appears that other administrations across the continent were keen to avoid such tension and unrest and, therefore, decided to proceed with elections. Nevertheless, while postponements were clearly portrayed as serving incumbents, the disruption caused by Covid-19 to campaigns and the electoral process has similarly been used to favour those in power. In Egypt, it was seen as contributing to the low voter turnout in the Senate election in August, which amounted to only 14 percent of the electorate and enabled President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s to increase his influence over the legislative branch of government. This low turnout is expected to be replicated in the House of Representatives election, which will be completed in November.
In addition to contributing to lower turnouts, it has also restricted the activities of opposition groups and election observers. In Guinea, the restrictions imposed due to Covid-19 disrupted the activities of opposition groups and led to a loss of momentum for the anti-government protest movement, which had been increasing pressure on the government earlier this year. Although the opposition has claimed that President Alpha Conde’s party rigged the election on 18th October, the banning of demonstrations and public meetings over the summer certainly undermined the opposition’s campaign. In contrast, the ruling party in Burundi – Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD) – was reluctant to place restrictions on campaign rallies, rather focusing on electoral observers, imposing strict quarantine conditions for anyone visiting the country. This meant that there were no international observers for the election in May, the result of which has been disputed by the opposition.
Similar concerns were also raised ahead of the Malawian presidential election, which took place on 23rd June. This followed the annulment of the 2019 poll and there were fears that the incumbent – Peter Mutharika – would try to use Covid-19 restrictions to undermine the opposition. Nevertheless, despite such concerns and the absence of international observers, the re-run of the vote was not disputed and led to a historic win for the opposition candidate, Lazarus Chakwera. This indicated that, although Covid-19 restrictions can certainly favour powerful incumbents, they do not always lead to the government’s desired result and, in some instances, may even favour the opposition. It appears that this was the case in the Seychelles, where Wavel Ramkalawan ended the United Seychelles’ party’s 44-year dominance of politics in the archipelago on 25th October. It is likely that Ramkalawan not only gained support because of the economic problems caused by the Coronavirus but also benefitted from the fact that most of the campaign was conducted on social media, a platform which tends to be better utilised by opposition parties in Africa.
Important elections are still to come in 2020 in Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Ghana and Liberia. Although postponements no longer appear to be an option, Covid-19 and the restrictions related to the pandemic will continue to be significant factors influencing voting in Africa. While it is likely that this will favour incumbents, both Malawi and the Seychelles have shown that this will not necessarily be the case, making it a new unknown component for those competing in elections this year.
This article originally featured in Africa Integrity’s October 2020 Newsletter. To join our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.