On March 31, an announcement by the Ethiopian electoral commission rocked the boat in Addis Ababa. Legislative elections scheduled for August, 29, have been delayed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The elections should have been a crucial political moment for the country and Abiy Ahmed’s leadership: the Ethiopian prime minister had promised that free and fair elections would have been held as a moment for consolidating Ethiopia’s transition towards a democratic system of governance. Abiy’s political challenge was even more critical because of the decision to promote the establishment of a new party, the Prosperity Party, dissolving the former ruling coalition – Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – to go beyond the ethnic dimension (and cleavages) of Ethiopian polity, in spite of the risk of feeding the consensus of ethnic- or regional-based parties. Therefore, legislative elections were foreseen as a watershed in the political history of a country of 110 million people.
The pronouncement of the national electoral body, headed by a former opponent of the EPRDF regime, Birtukan Mideksa, came as a surprise when the confirmed number of infected people in the country did not exceed a few dozen and no deaths had yet been confirmed. As expected, the decision quickly produced political and social consequences: regional tensions have resurfaced and PM Abiy has been accused of wanting to postpone the vote to strengthen his hold on power. For its part, the government criticised the oppositions, accusing them of taking advantage of the situation to destabilise the country. To further compound the situation, no specific constitutional provision regulates an extension of the government’s mandate, which is due to expire in October. Despite the constitutional vacuum, the Ethiopian parliament voted to extend the prime minister’s mandate, allowing him to remain in office until elections are held. Following the decision, two Oromo-based opposition parties, the Oromo Federalist Congress and the Oromo Liberation Front, released a joint communiqué rejecting it as an illegal and illegitimate act.
The declaration of the state of emergency, allowing the government to adopt all necessary means to preserve peace and security in the country, including the suspensions of political rights, followed the prompt adoption of restrictive measures (i.e. closing of schools, ban on gatherings, etc.) to curb the spread of the pandemic. And while the international community was congratulating Addis Ababa on its ability to promptly react to the health emergency, internal contradictions went growing. The partial liberalization of the political system under Abiy’s leadership triggered ethno-nationalistic claims, but the postponement of the legislative elections and the concrete risk of a political-institutional crisis contributed to an increased risk violent outbreaks. Faced with a choice of either preventing the spread of the disease at the expense of democratic practices, or keeping to the electoral roadmap while risk fuelling the impact of the pandemic, Addis Ababa chose the first option.
The impact of the novel coronavirus on electoral processes throughout the continent is linked to the trade-off between democratic practices – whether formal or substantive - and public health, the legitimacy of political institutions and the need to flatten the pandemic curve in structurally-fragile countries.
In Malawi, the constitutional court has annulled last year’s controversial election, which saw the re-election of president Peter Mutharika, due to irregularities: the historical decision laid the foundations for new presidential elections to be held on July, 2. However, the threat of Covid-19 provided President Mutharika with the chance to declare a state of disaster, stopping gatherings of more than five people, public events and electoral rallies, even before the first case was confirmed. Despite widespread popular protests, the health emergency allowed Mutharika to stay in power, making prospects for a leadership handover less likely. Elections are still supposed to take place, but existing conditions prevent from campaigning, directly harming the chances of opposition parties. It cannot be ruled out that the president could decide to suspend the electoral process: according to many analysts, Mutharika seems willing to delay the election re-run and to interfere with the independence of the courts. Indeed, in his recent state-of-the-nation address, the president stressed the “dilemma between going to an election too soon or preventing the spreading of coronavirus” and his duty to make a decision, thus emphasizing the supremacy of the government and of parliament over the courts. Mutharika’s possible attempt to cling to power could produce severe consequences for the legitimacy of national institutions and for Malawi’s democracy.
The novel coronavirus crisis, on the other hand, did not prevent Guinea from holding legislative elections and a controversial constitutional referendum, albeit with restrictive measures in place – such as the ban on gatherings of more than a hundred people – to contain the spread of the virus. The constitutional reform envisages a limit of two six-year presidential terms while allowing the incumbent, Alpha Condé, who has been in office since 2010, to run again for a new mandate. The referendum – which was fiercely criticised during popular demonstrations and boycotted by the opposition members – showed approval of the constitutional reform by a large majority, marking a decided authoritarian turn for the regime in Conakry.
In Burundi, the Covid-19 pandemic opened a new chapter in the history of relations between the regime and the United Nations. President Pierre Nkurunziza – who officially died of a heart attack a few days ago, with umours suggesting the real cause was coronavirus – had ordered the representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO) to leave the country, accusing them of political interferences. Already in 2018 Burundian authorities had expelled UN experts in charge of ascertaining human rights violations. The government made the decision a few days before the presidential elections, that were held on May 20. Concerns about a possible worsening of the health crisis did not affect the electoral process: the regime denied the severity of the pandemic, while Nkurunziza’s spokesman said that Burundi was under divine protection and this would have contained the spread of the virus. The absence of any restrictive measures allowed for electoral rallies and permitted large crowds to gather. The regime instead made use of the emergency to prevent international observers from validating the regularity and fairness of the vote, since they were subjected to the fourteen-day quarantine for people entering the country. The appointment of Nkurunziza as “eternal supreme guide” paved the way for a guided transition of power to Evariste Ndayishimiye, the newly elected president, ensuring the continuity of the existing power system. In this respect, elections were useful to Nkurunziza continuing to exert a leading role in Burundi’s politics, while formally restoring the legitimacy of the presidency. His unexpected death changed this scenario.
The impact of the novel coronavirus crisis on political and electoral processes in sub-Saharan Africa could produce even more disruptive effects over the next months, should the emergency not be reined in. Legislative and presidential elections are scheduled in many countries all over the continent, from Côte d'Ivoire to Niger, from Ghana to Burkina Faso, from Central African Republic to Somalia: any delays risk threatening stability of some countries, while worsening crisis situations in others.