Election go ahead!
It is more than five months since the most hyped general elections postponed at the backdrop of the global coronavirus pandemic. Preparations were continuing by the restructured National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) to hold polling on August 29, 2020. The advent of coronavirus pandemic ensued restrictions imposed on public gatherings and many other social activities by the government.
To deal with the constitutional crisis following the delayed elections which were to be held a month before the end of the terms of the House of the Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) and the executive body of the government, the administration went to look for constitutional interpretations. Accordingly, it prolonged the terms of the HPR and the executive bodies both at the federal and regional levels. In decisions to do so, the Council of Constitutional Inquiry (CCI) indicated that the elections will be held when the pandemic becomes no more public health threat. The Council entrusted the Ministry of Health (MoH) to resolve on the issue. MoH and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) told CCI in May that the pandemic will be no more a public health threat only when a vaccine or medicine is discovered or other scientifically proven means is found. However, early this week, the Minister of Health Liya Tadesse (MD) recommended the elections to go ahead despite the virus staying to be a public health threat for an unforeseeable future. The decision stirred a debate within politicians and other observers as it stands conflicting with the decisions by the CCI regarding the elections. Many argue MoH’s decision is delicate when seen in the light of the analysis it has made in its report to the HPR. In the picture above is seen Liya Tadesse (MD) before presenting her COVID-19 status report to the HPR.
Election amid conflicting health, constitutional allusions
The preparations for the 2020 general elections in Ethiopia was engulfed in a hype, full of promises, to make it a free and fair election, unlike previous times. The newly appointed Chairperson to the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) had repeatedly committed that the general election is going to be like no other, in the past.
A previous politician and an ex-judge herself, the first task Birtukan Mideksa, chairperson of NEBE undertook was to restructure the Board along with enacting laws that establish and govern political parties. This is one of the success stories, the leadership on the Board, mentions here and there.
While going through this “reform” the first test for the Board came from the Sidama zone in the Southern Region, demanding to establish their own regional state through a referendum as directed by the regional council. Now a breakaway region from the South, the Sidama referendum was conducted by the NEBE resulting in the formation of the 10th regional state as a new member of the federation.
Since the completion of the Sidama referendum, all eyes turned to the general elections. The preparation for the polls, originally slated for August 29, 2020, began months ago by arranging several directives for the various actors in the election process, including the media, civil society, and political parties. The board had also mapped and disclosed the ballot stations across the nation, which were counted to be around 59,000 at the time.
Alas! This was but a mere enthusiasm and talk. The global Coronavirus pandemic, which entered the country in March 2020, made the Board halt all its preparations for the election and asked the Parliament, to which it is accountable, to find a resolution to the constitutional crisis arising thereof.
In a report presented to the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR), the Board also indicated that, while the elections should have been held a month before the end of the term to the existing parliament and the executive body, the House should find ways to fill the gap in the government.
The major reason the Board presented to justify its inability to hold the elections is the limiting factor the stringent measures put in place in the country to prevent the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. As a result, activities like sealing of election equipment at the Ethiopian Airlines’ warehouse, procurement of remaining printed materials, trainers training for more than 1,000 election officials and for more than 150,000 election facilitators and voter education, have been delayed.
The Board then cancelled the election schedule it prepared and announced it would prepare a new operational plan and proceed with its activities, when the virus is under control.
After the Board’s decision, the government contemplated four alternatives, to find ways to deal with the looming constitutional crisis due to lack of a clear provision in the constitution that governs elections at a time of a State of Emergency. The four alternatives the government looked into were extending the state of emergency further, dissolving the HPR and announcing an election within six months, amending the constitution to extend the government’s term and seek a constitutional interpretation. The government went for interpreting the constitution.
Taking this choice, the Parliament referred the matter to the Council of the Constitutional Inquiry (CCI), an advisory body to the constitutional interpreting body – the House of Federation (HoF).
The Council, presenting its findings to the HoF and the HPR, which ultimately got fully endorsed, decided that the general elections should be held within nine to 12 months, starting from the announcement, by the relevant bodies, that the pandemic is not a public health threat anymore.
In an inquiry the CCI made by calling the heads of the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute (EPHI) on May 2020 and incorporated in its 24-page long report to the HoF, said the pandemic will only be deemed over when a vaccine, a cure or another scientifically proven findings are found. Hence, it concluded, it is impossible to hold the elections in the presence of the pandemic because it would hinder electoral processes like voter registration and polling.
Citing free and fair elections at a time of a pandemic would require huge resources and legal documents’ amendment as well as exploiting technology to conduct voter registration, voting and other components of the election; CCI indicated that the country is devoid of the required huge resources to hold the elections according to schedule.
“Given the limited economic capacity of the country, it would not be possible to hold a free and fair election before the virus is no more a public health threat,” the recommendation had concluded.
Accordingly, the authorities to deem the virus “not a public health threat” are, in ascending order, the World Health Organization (WHO), the MoH, and EPHI and other members of the scientific community, who would take the vulnerability of the public in relation to health situations in neighboring countries, it concluded.
Nevertheless, the MoH has come up with new recommendations to hold the postponed national election, despite the virus being a public health threat for the unforeseeable future, surprising many observers.
Approved by the HPR, the report by the MoH indicated that the pandemic had a far-reaching impact than health and it had affected 66,224 people in more than 900 woredas as of Monday, September 16, 2020.
Although Ethiopia stands third in Africa for the number of tested individuals, it also boasts the highest number of COVID-19 infections in East Africa.
According to the report, 58 percent of the affected people are from Addis Ababa with Oromia, Tigray and Amhara regions trailing behind for the highest number of infected people. This information has made many questions how the election could be conducted while places like Addis Ababa, where there is better awareness of the pandemic, have large number of people that have contracted the virus. And the fact that there is a huge stereotype against masking in most parts of the country, it makes the recommendation by the MoH weaker.
However, the elections that are going to be held should take two main measures into consideration. The first one is preparing a new election code of conduct, regulation and directives that serve the prevention of the virus, while the other consideration is enhancing preparedness to isolate areas in case of sudden spikes in infection.
But critics indicate that the MoH did not provide enough evidence for the elections to be conducted, as was previously demanded by the CCI decision. Rather, it strongly asserted that the pandemic would remain to be a public health threat with the recommendation and the analysis supporting the case for not holding the elections, commentators indicated.
Surprisingly, the fact that Tigray region had conducted its regional council elections on September 9, 2020, has made many to believe that the elections could have been held according to the original schedule, during the early stages of the pandemic had the government resorted to not holding the election. But this argument, others observe, lacks an understanding that even though the preparations were carried out according to the schedule, the D-Date would have been at a time the pandemic reached all the regions.
The antibody test conducted in 14 towns across the nation indicates that the rate of the spread nationwide is at 4.5 percent. Addis Ababa’s rate is 4.1 while Gambella, Dire Dawa City Administration, Jigjiga and Harari, have the highest rates in the country with 9.3 percent, 7.7 percent, 7.5 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively. This shows that there is a rampant community spread in the country and the higher rate, the higher the spread is in other parts of the country compared to Addis Ababa. This is indicative of the loose measures put in place to prevent the spread of the pandemic.
In addition, the report by the Ministry also shows that 86 percent of people infected by the virus are people in the productive age group, aged between 15 and 59, affecting the election process and voter turnout, given the fact that the most affected people by the virus are the people who would actively take part in the elections.
Although people who travel out of Addis Ababa to remote parts of the country are mocked for wearing masks, the Ministry has said that the number of infected, dead and the peak of the spread are determined by the level of implementation of physical distancing, and especially masking.
“For instance, if physical distancing reaches 25 percent and masking 50 percent of the society, the spread and deaths can be decreased to 92 percent without any other additional measures. And if there was 100 percent masking, the spread would drastically drop and push the pandemic’s peak ahead. Apart from decreasing the death rate, this would minimize the impacts on the health system, social and political aspects of life,” the Ministry recommends. But anti-masking and stereotypes would eventually hinder this task, as it is being observed currently. For instance, the level of masking in Addis Ababa stands at 75 percent which indicates that there is still a section of the society that needs to embrace masking.
Admitting that the recommendations and predictions that the Ministry has made are based on assumptions as a result of the novelty of the virus, it cautions that the key determinant of the spread, death, peak and the socio-economic impact, is the concerted efforts made by the government and the public to prevent the disease.
On the other hand, the deficit in the government’s projected financial requirements to help prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate its impacts, could also pose a challenge in the overall activities relating to the coronavirus pandemic. The government projected it needs USD 360 million to help deal with the pandemic but runs short of USD 128.6 million.
All in all, the report by the Ministry indicates that the virus is still a public health threat. Even though the Ministry and the EPHI told the CCI hearing that a vaccine or other scientifically proven findings are helpful to deem the pandemic no longer a public health threat, it states that even though a vaccine is found, it would be difficult for the country to access it.
“After the finding of the vaccine, it won’t be easy to access enough amounts of vaccines by purchase or aid, given the current race at a global stage. Hence, for the coming time, it is believed that the disease will remain to be a public health threat,” the Ministry concluded.
Nevertheless, many commentators have indicated that, when seen against the CCI, HoF and HPR’s decisions, the MoH’s recommendations to proceed with the election and resume economic and social activities by implementing strict preventive measures are week. Some also say that the report does not provide a strong case that the pandemic would stop being a public health threat, at least at the time of polling as demanded by the CCI.