The coronavirus sweeping the world has posed many difficult questions to government ministers and experts. Perhaps the most well-known of these is whether the best and fairest way to tackle the virus is to enforce a strict lockdown. Coronavirus is also asking profound questions about our democracies, but these have received much less attention. The most pressing question for the African countries that were scheduled to hold elections in the next twelve months has been whether to put health before democracy. While Burundi (May) and Malawi (July) are pressing ahead, Ethiopia has decided to postpone.
There are clearly some good reasons to delay. It is hard to imagine how rallies – which are a central feature of political campaigns in most African countries – can take place in the context of social distancing. Voting might be possible, but special measures would have to be implemented to prevent queues from becoming unfeasibly long. Partly for these reasons, the New York Board of Elections cancelled the scheduled primary election of the Democratic Party, while the United Kingdom postponed its local council elections.
This might make the decision seem like a no-brainer, but the reality is far more complex because sacrificing democracy may actually make it harder to maintain political stability and implement health policies. Over the past four years I have been running a project on how to strengthen democracy around the world with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. A lot of this work has focussed on the way that elections can create – or lose – legitimacy for a government. It is fairly well known that winning an election with a large majority can give a government a mandate to implement its policies. It is also pretty obvious that governments that are accused of rigging elections are less likely to benefit from this honeymoon bounce.
These realities are of profound importance to the three countries mentioned – and the other countries - due to hold elections this year. In Burundi and Malawi, governments need to restore their legitimacy following a series of political controversies, while in Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed needs to hold a good quality election to demonstrate that he can deliver on his faltering reform agenda. Failing to hold elections is therefore dangerous because it has the potential to trigger instability and to make it harder for the government to implement key policies on coronavirus and beyond.
Take Malawi, for example, which is scheduled to hold a “fresh” presidential election after President Peter Mutharika’s victory in 2019 was nullified by the Constitutional Court. The episode – along with further accusations of democratic backsliding – has undermined opposition confidence in the government and the electoral commission. In turn, this helps to explain why the announcement of a planned lockdown to contain the spread of coronavirus was met with street protests in many urban areas. In addition to concerns that a lockdown would lead to intolerable hunger and poverty, some protestors argued that the government did not have the legitimacy to impose tight restrictions on the population. It therefore came as little surprise when the Human Rights Defenders Coalition challenged the legality of the election and, on 28 April, persuaded the High Court to suspend it indefinitely.
Malawi may therefore not be able actually enforce measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus until its long running electoral dispute is resolved.
There is no certainty, of course, that holding an election will actually confer greater legitimacy on a government. The upcoming election is important for Ethiopia, because failure to do hold it will frustrate opposition groups and Abiy is already struggling to contain localised violence and protests. Yet a rushed election with a low quality process may re-ignite ethnic and regional tensions.
This kind of controversial outcome looks particularly likely in Burundi, where a “deteriorating” human rights situation suggests that the government intends to intimidate its way back to power. Indeed, sceptics wonder whether one reason that President Pierre Nkurunziza is determined to hold the polls is that it will be easier to get away with a poor quality election while the attention of the international community is focussed on the pandemic.
Where does this leave us? Election victories can help governments to legitimate restrictive policies and avert instability, but only if they are seen to be free and fair. Postponing elections may be justified on health grounds, but delays can cause as many problems as they solve. Going ahead with elections may signal an impressive commitment to democracy, but we must be careful that the pandemic is not being manipulated to make it easier to rig them.
Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the Director of the Political Economy of Democracy Promotion project, a collaboration with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy.