The Ethiopian Ministry of Health, Liya Tadesse(MD) submitted a report to the House of Peoples’ Representatives assuring the upper chamber that the elections can be held, despite spikes in coronavirus cases and death tolls, today September 18, 2020.
The country has currently recorded higher numbers of infection and death than in June when the elections were postponed by the House of Peoples Representatives. By the end of June the country had reported 5,846 cases and 103 deaths due to the novel pandemic. Currently the country’s case count has surpassed 60,000 while death tolls have risen to 1,060.
However, Ethiopian Minister of Health, Lia Tadesse assured the parliament today that even though the number of coronavirus cases has increased in the country, precautionary measures and treatment capacity has increased in the months since the virus was first confirmed in the country. She also reported that due to this increase in capacity, in the month August several home visits by health officials were conducted to care for affected persons, increase awareness and identify cases not reported within the community.
In addition, the minister also asserted that because the virus has spread to all regional states of the country as well as Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, efforts to mitigate the case numbers and death tolls solely depend on the observance of precautionary measures such as social distancing and mask wearing. The minister also reminded the upper house that because 95% of the confirmed cases are patients with no travel history, the virus has infiltrated most communities in the country. Because of this, according to the minister, precautionary measures and the observance thereof is the biggest determinant in the number of cases and death tolls in the coming months.
It was in this light that the Ethiopian Minister of Health, Lia Tadesse’s report asserted to the parliament that given the proper observance of precautionary measures such as social distancing, mask wearing and use of sanitary equipment, the 6th National and Regional elections of Ethiopia could be held in the coming months. The minister also urged for research to be done and precaution to be taken in parts of the country with a higher number of cases than others.
There are several elements to the recent report by the Ministry of Health. From public health concerns regarding the safety of holding elections during the pandemic to the political implication of both the timing and ramification of the report, there is so much that can be said about the above development. This article discusses some of these implications.
What elections mean to COVID19 cases
With the inauguration of the first factory that manufactures coronavirus testing kits just this month, the Ethiopian government and health infrastructure are definitely better equipped to deal with the pandemic than a few months ago. Even though Ethiopia has increased its capacity in COVID response the probability of having a higher number of infections is open for questions.
The conclusion of the Wisconsin Public - the media outlet of the Wisconsin Public Radio - analyzed the findings of several studies conducted on the correlation between the April 7 Wisconsin elections and the spike in cases in the state. The article which features several studies on the matter states that researchers are divided on the matter.
Doctors from Milwaukee's Froedtert Hospital released a study on April 28, 2020 claiming that there was no correlation between covid19 cases and elections in the Wisconsin State. Another study by a group of researchers from Stanford University and the University of Hong Kong also agreed with the conclusion of the first study.
According to the two studies, there was no discernable link between voting and number of confirmed coronavirus cases. Another story released on May 11, however, disagreed with the above findings claiming that there were higher numbers of cases in the weeks following the election in some counties of the state of Wisconsin. The study by researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and Ball State University suggested that there was a spike in cases in counties that had more in person voters per polling station.
Like the elections in Wisconsin, the Ethiopian elections - should they be held during the pandemic - can also feature similar findings. In other words, even though the use of protective masks and the application of social distancing may allow Ethiopians to participate in the elections, it cannot guarantee the spike in cases wouldn’t occur following the elections. There could also be different outcomes in different polling stations.
According to the International Institution for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), due to the coronavirus pandemic, 71 countries and territories postponed national and local elections. Ethiopia was one of those featured in the list. IDEA - an organization working in areas of democracy and electoral justice in several countries - also reported that 60 countries and territories held elections amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The above study is a good indicator of the impact of COVID-19 on elections. By seeing experiences of other countries that held elections during the pandemic, one may attempt to construct the potential features of the Ethiopian elections maybe, should the elections be held amid the pandemic. Because of similar socio-political realities, African elections and referendums will be discussed here.
Voter Registration and Turnout
The first political ramification to consider is the impact of the pandemic on voter registration. In Burundi, voter registration and turnout increased from 73.4% to 88%, even though the outcomes of the elections have been questioned by local human rights groups, opposition leaders and other stakeholders. However, in the Benin local elections, the voter turnout took a significant hit dropping from 56.95% in 2015 to 49.14%. The pandemic also had similar negative impacts in the Presidential elections of Guinea. The voter turnout plummeted from 68.4% in the 2015 presidential elections to 58% in the one held on March 22, 2020.
According to other statistics from IDEA, Ethiopia has featured high voter turnout numbers in past elections. According to the institute, in the 2015 elections, voter turnout was at 93.22% while the 2010 elections featured a similarly high voter registration percentage recorded at 93.44%. The other three elections in 2005, 2000 and 1995 also featured encouragingly high numbers when it comes to voter registration. Here, the question is if these numbers can be sustained like the case in Burundi or if voter registration will plummet due to the pandemic as it did in Benin and Guinea. This depends on awareness of the community, strength of political campaigns, efforts of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia during registration and other preparatory steps and accessibility of polling stations.
Democrtic, free and fair elections?
Another impact of the pandemic that is worth considering, is the fairness and independence of an election held amid pandemic times. This naturally has little to nothing to do with the epidemic. Whether the elections are free, fair and independent ultimately depends on the independence of the national electoral board and the policies of the ruling party.
However, like in Burundi, the vacuum created by the pandemic may allow governments to affect outcomes of elections. The Burundi election was marred with allegations of intimidation of voters in polling stations, attacks on observers of the election and other disparities in the process and outcomes of the election. With the questionable track record of Ethiopian elections, this may also be a key area to think about while thinking about elections during a pandemic.
Clock to start running on the TPLF?
Finally, an entirely Ethiopian challenge the election may bring with it. This concerns the recently conducted regional elections in the Tigray Regional State of the Ethiopian federation. Prior to the election, on multiple occasions, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed identified the date of the national elections as the potential date of disagreement between the Federal government and the Tigray Regional State. The decision to reconvene the elections will therefore represent the official countdown for the potential clash between the central government and the northern regional state.
The House of Peoples’ Representatives was deliberating on the recommendation of the Ministry of Health at the time this article was written. Addis Zeybe attempted to reach Getachew Reda, Advisor to the president of Tigray regional state and Executive Committee member of TPLF, Merera Gudina, Chairman of OFC, the public relations officer of EZEMA Natnael Feleke and other academic commentators. However, no response was received from any of the contracted persons while EZEMA refrained to comment on the matter prior to the HPR reaching a decision on the matter.