Covid-19 And Election 2020: Matters Arising

It appears that all across sub-Saharan Africa, general elections are very much a ‘do-or-die affair’ with violence and allegations of rigging as part of the menu. In many cases, beyond the glossy manifestoes and the fine, high-brow speeches, the political parties run along ethnic and/or religious fault lines and ancient, deep-seated animosities easily light up with the spark of the ballot box.

Add to this, the allure of the spoils of power and the woes and miseries of being in opposition, and you have a recipe for chaos.

Invariably, opposition parties scream that the incumbent government has rigged an election or intends to and in many cases, have a just cause while incumbent governments accuse the opposition of being sore losers, again sometimes with just cause.

EC and electoral journey

Over the past 28 years of our democratic governance, this scenario has played out again and again, but mercifully without widespread violence, although we have almost always experienced heightened tension in the country whenever an election beckons.

Our two main political parties, the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), have both complained about election results and rigging while in opposition, accusing the Electoral Commission (EC) of being in a cosy bed with the ruling government.

Of course, it is noteworthy that both our past substantive chairs of the EC have presided over elections that have resulted in the opposition party being declared winner.

Further, over the years, our electoral process seems to have evolved to the point where it is generally believed that it is nigh impossible for the Electoral Commission (EC) to rig a general election in this country when the political parties are vigilant.

This has found expression in the popular saying that ‘elections are won at the polling station.’

Voter register quarrel

Long before COVID-19 showed up on our shores, the issue of a new voter register had generated so much heat in the country. Essentially, the NPP supported the EC’s decision to have a new voters register on the grounds that consistent with its position pre-December 2016, the party’s view was that the register was not credible.

The NDC’s argument has been that it was this same register that brought the NPP to power and that it is expensive to go for a new register. In this, it finds common ground with some Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).

The interesting thing is that the two parties have been consistent in their positions since before the 2016 elections. Only the EC has shifted from its pre-2016 position.

The NDC accuses the EC of being in bed with the NPP government, which of course begs the question as to whether the EC was, by inference, in bed with the NDC government at the time, given the NDC’s support for the EC then.

Enter COVID-19

With COVID-19 and the attendant issue of social distance now in the framework, there have been renewed calls for the EC to abandon the idea of a new voters register altogether and to make do with the existing one, whatever its challenges, real or perceived.

Suddenly, the argument by some opposition elements have shifted to a concern that the process of registering for a new register is fraught with health risks we cannot afford.

I do have some difficulty with this shift in ground and I am inclined to believe it is either a confused position or an insincere one.

First, setting aside the issue of a new register, we will have to have a limited voter registration exercise in order not to disenfranchise those who have turned 18 since the last election.

If that process can and should be engaged, how is that different from a new voter registration exercise in terms of social distance and hygiene protocols within the context of COVID-19?

If the argument is that a limited exercise essentially involves fewer people and, therefore, much lower risk, a question arises; does just one infected person not pose a grave risk with many others potentially being infected?

In any event, in December 2020, we will be voting in the general election, which suggests queuing et al. It is possible that the virus will still be with us. How is voting different from a voter registration process within the context of COVID-19 risks?

Indeed, the general election poses a higher risk because it will have to be done within specific hours in one day, and, therefore, the massing up of people is likely to be far more than a voter registration process that covers, say one month, and is, therefore, easier to regulate by way of ensuring social distance.

Of course, the only logical conclusion to draw from those who say they have COVID-19-related difficulty with people gathering for new voter registration is that they should advocate for the cancellation of the election altogether.

That seems to be a more consistent argument if indeed the only or even major concern is social distance and hygiene protocols for any aspect of the electoral process.

Constitutional crisis

Of course, given that the President and the Parliament’s tenure is four years and no more, suspending the election invariably means the President must leave office on January 6, 2021, and Parliament will be dissolved at midnight on that day, paving the way for the Chief Justice to act as President pending an election.

But what happens if the virus is with us for another year or so? Clearly, we would be heading for a constitutional crisis with a governance paralysis.

I do not think there is any reasonable person in this country who would like to see this country plunged into a constitutional crisis.

My view is that come what may, it should be possible to hold the election with the necessary safeguards in place to reduce to the barest minimum, the risk of infection. And if that can be done, I have difficulty in reconciling myself to the COVID-19 basis for objecting to the new voter registration when the same safeguards can be employed.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that according to news reports, some NDC elements rushed to the City Escape Hotel in the Airport area in Accra the other day. Their complaint was that the EC was allegedly flouting the terms of an injunction secured by an MP on the basis that the EC’s planned meeting in Prampram was in violation of the President’s social distance orders.

But curiously these gentlemen, upon all their concern for social distancing, converged freely at the hotel entrance with no face masks and clearly disregarding social distance.

Life must go on

There is absolutely no doubt that the coronavirus has impacted our lives in so many ways and will force a change in our way of life for some time to come.

But equally, our lives cannot be held in abeyance forever. We cannot be in lockdown or close down our schools and churches and bars in perpetuity even if the virus is still around. In a gradualist manner, we must, and we will, get our lives back on track, while of course observing the necessary directives to stay safe.

By all means, let those who oppose the new voter registration process continue to do so, even vociferously, if they so choose. Let them continue to advocate fiercely and resort to the courts if they wish. That is the beauty of democracy.

However, for the political elements in particular to shamelessly abandon their original grounds of objection and then conveniently seek to ride on the coat tails of a public fear of the virus to drive a narrow political agenda of derailing a new voters register appears to me rather untidy.

Well, let’s see how it all pans out in this beautiful republic of ours.