The twin health and economic crisis posed by the Covid-19 pandemic is rolling back democracy and putting the safety and integrity of elections at dire risk. Even as the world emerges from lockdowns and as countries gradually reopen, Covid-19 will remain a threat to Africa’s emerging democracies, including elections.
According to a recent report by the Commonwealth Secretariat, Covid-19 and Election Management in Africa: Challenges, Innovations and Opportunities (2021), Africa’s leading democracies such as South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Kenya are the hardest hit by the health crisis. The pandemic has put at risk the integrity and safety of the coming elections in Kenya, one of the 16 African countries expected to hold presidential, national assembly or municipal elections in 2022.
In Kenya, like other African countries, the coronavirus crisis has not only struck at the heart of citizenship, but it has also restricted space for free and effective political mobilisation. To secure its democracy, Kenya needs strategies to confront the impact of the crisis on the August 2022 elections.
The ensuing socio-economic devastation is giving wings to populism and other divisive ideologies. The divisive “Hustler” ideology is thriving on the massive loss of jobs and incomes. Nearly 740,000 workers have lost their jobs in one year as a result of measures imposed to contain the epidemic.
Total employment dropped to 17.4 million, down from 18.1 million in 2019. Earnings from the tourism sector fell by a whopping 43.9 per cent to 91.7 billion in 2020, the highest decline for any sector. This has created a new crop of angry voters.
While Kenya’s political class is currently focused on building coalitions, the big question is how the country will conduct elections in the midst of the pandemic. The country needs strategies to mitigate the impact of the disease on the electoral process and to secure the voters’ political rights.
Globally, Covid-19 has made elections more expensive, forcing governments to seek additional poll financing. The public health crisis is testing Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and other poll agencies across the continent. These agencies are under pressure to devise innovative ways to adapt to operational challenges and deliver credible elections.
Overstretched and overwhelmed, they have to manage voter registration processes, coordinate and collaborate with state agencies to secure operational success while observing Covid-19 protocols. The pandemic also poses challenges relating to the voting days, results management and adjudication of election-related cases. In some cases, responding to the health emergency has necessitated changes to the existing legal and constitutional frameworks, as well as electoral laws.
Due to lockdowns, some countries delayed and rescheduled elections. According to a recent study by the International Idea titled Global Overview of Covid-19: Impact on Elections (31/8/2021), from February 21, 2020 to August 21, 2021, at least 79 countries postponed elections and referendums.
In some cases, postponement intensified ethnic tensions and social cleavages. The deadly conflict in Tigray and massive humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ethiopia was in some ways triggered by the government’s decision to postpone parliamentary elections, originally scheduled for August 29, 2020, but which were moved to June 21, 2021 due to Covid-19.
However, at least 132 countries have decided to hold elections despite health concerns and at least 57 held elections that had been postponed.
Kenya has held several by-elections and is on track to hold the August 9, 2022 General Election.
Kenya should draw lessons from other African countries to ensure election safety and integrity. One lesson is from Côte d’Ivoire, where the authorities adopted an online system for checking the voter register.
In 2021, the Malawi Electoral Commission intensified the use of social media to distribute Covid-sensitive voter education materials and relied on animation instead of human actors. In Ghana, each polling station had a “Covid-19 ambassador”, who was tasked with ensuring people stood at least one metre apart in the queues, washed their hands and wore a mask. In the Central African Republic, a dedicated poll worker is responsible for ensuring voters abide by Covid-19 mitigation measures. Some countries provided protective equipment to electoral staff and polling stations.
Due to time constraints, Burkina Faso reduced the inspection period for the voter register. By the same token, Egypt staggered voting, holding senate and parliamentary polls in stages in different months. In Nigeria, a Covid-19 electoral policy framework was widely publicised, increasing transparency for interested parties.
Alternative voting processes
Some countries have explored alternative voting processes such as postal or remote voting to protect the voters and electoral officials. The United States introduced drive-through voting stations.
Kenya should invest in technology and provide alternatives such as remote registration and voting. The country should also enhance offline and online systems and structures, as well as increase the use of radio and social media rather than in-person events. The IEBC, however, should address factors hindering efforts to reach voters, including technology gaps and challenges in the policing of social media.
Finally, the IEBC should endeavour to enforce WHO guidelines for conducting elections during the pandemic, including limiting crowds, encouraging physical distancing and limiting the number of people voting per day.
People giving out ballots must wear gloves and ensure equipment is regularly sanitised. While this might extend the duration of elections, the alternative is to add more polling stations. On campaigns, the IEBC and authorities should be even-handed. Obviously, unequal enforcement of Covid-19 rules would foster the view that the elections are biased.
Ultimately, authorities and electoral agencies must work pragmatically and proactively within the law to ensure credible elections.