Tanzania and Uganda have decided to brave the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic to hold general elections. Both countries are decidedly headed to polls scheduled for October this year and January 2021 respectively.
They are not alone. Burundi and South Korea have pulled off elections during the pandemic and, despite having the heaviest Covid-19 case load globally, the United States is on course to hold its own presidential poll in November.
Whilst this is a win for democracy, questions abound, especially in African democracies where elections and their outcome have always been a contentious affair.
Over the past four decades, it has become an established norm for African incumbents to rely on foreign observer teams to validate election outcomes which, ideally should have been a matter of domestic consensus. Convenient because it lends the winners the legality to represent their countries in international engagements, it has had the unwanted effect of stifling the evolution of electoral systems that grant the winner legitimacy at home.
This debate is all the more important in the context of the restrictions on human interaction that the Covid-19 pandemic makes necessary for a safe election. The extent of such restrictions and how they are applied across the board is going to have a bearing on perceptions of the fairness of the process and the validity of its outcome. In the United States, by default considered the well-spring of modern democracy, President Donald Trump is concerned about the likely impact on his fortunes, of votes cast via postal mail.
Tanzania, which has declared the country to be Covid-19 free, might not quite fit in this frame. Even though the government has continued to advise its citizens to observe measures that protect them from catching the highly infectious virus, contenders generally have fair, open access to their audiences through time tested methods.
Given the maturity of its democracy, President Trump’s fears are likely to be seen as far-fetched by the average American. But they will be amplified in polities where electoral commissions that have no control over the conduct of incumbents are experimenting with new methods of voting.
For instance, Uganda, which has been more conservative in its approach to control of the pandemic, is proposing what it describes as scientific campaigns. Contenders are expected to rely on mass and social media where access is unequal and selectively restricted, to canvass for support. The biggest problem for Uganda’s Electoral Commission, is that no effort has been made to align its proposals with a legal regime such as the Political Organisations Management Act (POMA), that imposes tight controls on political expression. In the ensuing lacuna, government functionaries are doing what they are expected to do – enforcing a law that almost criminalises opposing an incumbent president.
Bad elections always dim the prospects for peace, stability and long-term development in the EAC region. That is why electoral commissions must work hard at being seen to be fair arbiters through free, fair and transparent elections.
In the present circumstances, that begins with ensuring that no party feels disadvantaged by new campaign rules or the restrictions on assembly that Covid-19 has made necessary.