October 26, 2020

COVID and Election: the new reality in Ethiopia

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Since its outset, COVID-19 has introduced pressing new challenges to societies and democratic…

COVID and Election: the new reality in Ethiopia

Since its outset, COVID-19 has introduced pressing new challenges to societies and democratic systems worldwide. In the span of a few months, the pandemic has transformed fundamental aspects of individuals’ social lives, limiting their participation in public events and gatherings, and challenging the fulfillment of their individual and collective civic responsibilities and political rights. It is therefore no surprise that elections have been an immediate and inevitable casualty of the pandemic. Elections are large, social events that mobilize millions of people and bring entire societies together. No other operation conducted by a nation, state or territory presents a similar degree of operational magnitude, legal and procedural complexity, and mass involvement.

Elections are also the costliest and most administratively and logistically burdensome operation that a democracy can undertake during peacetime. Moreover, not only do elections need to be run seamlessly, and attain high levels of participation; they also need to simultaneously ensure inclusivity, transparency, security and integrity at all stages. 

The pandemic has rapidly challenged elections, making new and pressing demands on how they are managed. The main public health threat associated with elections arises from the requirement for voters to cast their ballots in person, at a polling station, most often on a single day. Having to converge to polling stations and handle voting materials that have been touched by many others, while being confined in crowded spaces where maintaining a safe distance from others may be difficult, or even impossible, has suddenly become a new challenge—and a potentially serious threat to both individual and public health.

The corona virus pandemic has disrupted hundreds of elections scheduled in 2020. While more than Sixty countries postponed voting, dozens of others, including Burundi, France, and South Korea, went forward with their elections.

Nonetheless, experts say elections held so far have shown that the risk of transmission in polling places decreases if officials enforce social distancing, require mask wearing, increase ventilation, and sanitize surfaces, among other measures. “Just providing different remote options on how to vote can also help minimize the risk of person-to-person transmission,” says Fernanda Buril, a senior researcher at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES)

The impact of the novel corona virus crisis on political and electoral processes in sub-Saharan Africa is huge. 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.

Ethiopia may now be in a position to hold parliamentary elections after taking precautionary measures against COVID-19. It’s to be remembered that at the request of the national electoral board of Ethiopia the house of people representatives have previously postponed the sixth national election from last Ethiopian year to the current one.

The decision to postpone the national election has faced opposition from opposing political parties to civil organizations and international actors of the legitimacy of the ruling party after the polls were postponed indefinitely.

But in the beginning of this year the minister of health of the nation Lia Tadesse said that the country could now hold the parliamentary election provided all the necessary precautions are put in place against the spread of the corona virus at the emergency session of the House of Peoples’ Representatives. 

After taking the Minister’s advice that elections can be conducted while taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, the parliament ordered the electoral board to make the necessary preparations to conduct the elections in the current Ethiopian fiscal year.

Currently the board has already begun the preparation for the election. But the novel corona virus continues to be a global health threat and no cure or vaccine has been found for it yet.

Addis Zeybe asked Soliana Shimeles, the communication advisor of the national election board on the necessary preparations taken by the board to curb the spread of the virus while conducting elections. She says the institution has already conducted studies to determine the impact of the delay of the elections and what kind of preparations are necessary to better equip the institution. She further explained that the board is preparing preventive measures and procedures to fight the spread of the virus. Adding that the  board will unveil plans in the coming weeks on measures it has taken to combat the corona virus during the election.

Chairperson of Ethiopian political party’s council Girma Gebremeskel on his part stated that all political parties have yet to agree that the election should be conducted in the current year. For him the country  has to deal with immense challenges such as ethnic violence, flooding and internal displacement and other challenges that are happening around the country first. 

Girma says that the corona virus is also another challenge, he says when the ruling party controlled house of people’s representatives passed a decision to postpone the election year the rate of transmission of the virus has been relatively slow. But now he says the number of confirmed cases in the country is increasing sharply and proper consultation and discussions needs to be conducted among various stakeholders to make sure the election will not become another problem for the country in regards with the control of the pandemic. Addis Zeybe also tried to get a response from the ministry of health. But our repeated efforts to contact the public relations department of the ministry has failed to bear any fruits.

Even though Ethiopia, according to the government, is going to hold elections this year, representatives from political parties have expressed concerns to conduct elections while the number of confirmed cases is increasing.  And with the ministry of health not disclosing the plans it's conducting to fight the spread of the disease in polling time, the issue of conducting safe elections in the time of the pandemic seems unresolved.