The Impact of COVID-19 on Transitional Elections and Peacebuilding

05 May 2020   ·   Sead Alihodzic, Ingrid Bicu

COVID-19 has delayed elections worldwide at an unprecedented rate, which will affect peacebuilding efforts. Germany should support national institutions in developing consultation mechanisms between electoral management bodies, public health authorities and other relevant actors and assist in crisis communication to create spaces for dialogue and to counter disinformation.

Elections are an essential instrument in restoring democracy and good governance after violent conflict. They are often seen as central to the exit strategy from a period of transition to a return to ‘normalcy’. The conventional riddle for peacebuilders is how to time and sequence post-conflict elections to strengthen peace and stability, in order to avoid relapsing to conflict. With the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the timing and sequencing equation has become more complex. Therefore, it is important for governments that provide negotiation and peacebuilding support, as well as for implementing organizations, to recognise and respond to these new dynamics.  

Elections and Peacebuilding Will Always Come With Dilemmas

Many peace agreements include provisions on the timing and sequencing of transitional democratic elections and the role of the international community in facilitating them. Discussions on when to hold transitional elections usually yield two camps. One argues for quick elections that capitalize on positive momentum and provide legitimacy to the government. Given the high stakes and technical complexity, however, immediate elections can be destabilizing and chaotic. Another camp therefore argues for delayed polls with sufficient time for technical preparations. Yet this approach may prolong the transition and allow time for opposing fractions to regain strength and restart the conflict. Dilemmas that relate to both options include the choice of the electoral system, holding elections versus reforming the constitution first, holding elections versus implementing security sector reform first, and the question of international or local ownership of electoral management. Poor choices may result in heightened tensions and delayed elections, which create space for, and therefore raise fears of, manipulations.

COVID-19 Has Delayed Elections Worldwide at an Unprecedented Rate

Having predictable and regular elections is vital for the political stability of democratic societies. However, there are examples when elections have been delayed in the face of challenging security situations (Chad), natural disasters (Haiti), technical mishaps (Nigeria), or epidemics (Liberia). The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the postponement of elections worldwide at an unprecedented rate. More than 50 elections (general, regional, local) have been postponed since 1 March 2020. Some countries and federal states have held elections with extraordinary health and safety measures in place, such as France and South Korea, through postal voting, such as the German state of Bavaria, or simply by (almost) following business as usual in Vanuatu in March and Kiribati in April.  

Decisions to hold or postpone elections due to COVID-19 do not come without controversies. If elections are held, critics argue that this tilts the playing field in favour of the incumbents, impacts on voter turnout figures, and – when the regular procedures are followed – represents a health risk to electoral officials, voters and observers. If elections are postponed, concerns include legal infringements and democratic backsliding. In conflict-affected countries, these controversies may increase tensions and undermine efforts to prevent crises, resolve conflicts and build peace.

The Pandemic Will Affect Vulnerable People in Conflict the Most

Though COVID-19 is indiscriminately affecting everyone, there is a high probability that the pandemic will aggravate the already existing inequalities in societies. On all the three central dimensions impacted by the outbreak - health, economy and human rights - the most affected are again the vulnerable categories of people who are mainly living in conflict. 

Peacebuilding efforts are severely impacted as well. The risk of illness faced by the assistance providers on the ground, the shift of focus from conflict prevention to supporting the efforts of containing the virus, the different allocation of resources due to the economic implication of the COVID-19 crisis for both the donor states and the beneficiaries are undoubtedly affecting the initial peacebuilding objectives. 

Many Countries in Conflict Have Postponed Their Upcoming Elections

At present, the German government supports numerous peace mediation, crisis prevention, stabilisation and post-conflict peacebuilding efforts worldwide. Many of the countries are/were expected to hold elections in 2020 or 2021. With COVID-19 in sight, the decisions vary from indefinitely postponing the polls to holding them amid the pandemic. To mention a few:

  • Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal suspended in March general elections initially scheduled for 3 May 2020.  In late April, the Plurinational Legislative Assembly approved a law calling for presidential elections by 2 August. However, the interim President immediately decreed the move, accusing the party of the former President – that controls the assembly - for endangering lives of Bolivians in an effort to regain power.
  • In the autonomous province of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, the introduction of a state of emergency caused the delay in the election calendar. Legislative changes adopted in late April enabled the holding of elections during a state of emergency.  The electoral management body will, however, need to implement guidelines provided by health and security officials.
  • Burkina Faso elections are scheduled for November 2020. Due to pandemic, the voter registration process has been suspended and the Election Commission will need to consider if a further revision of election calendar is needed. 
  • Mali held both rounds of legislative elections on 29 March and 19 April 2020 despite the threat of the coronavirus outbreak and the volatile security context. The health and safety concerns of the population were reflected in the lower turnout of just 23.22% in the second round in 2020 as opposed to 37.24% in the second round in 2013.  (Mali’s Constitutional Court has confirmed the results).
  • In Sri Lanka the Election Commission recently announced that parliamentary elections could not be conducted under the present circumstances of a public health emergency and movement restrictions, and would have to be postponed indefinitely. The President refused to acknowledge the postponement and instructed the Election Commission to proceed with the election as scheduled. To avoid a possible constitutional crisis the Electoral Commission set the country’s Parliament elections for 20 June 2020, but announced that it could be further delayed upon the recommendations of the health authorities.
  • Parliamentary elections in Syria, initially scheduled for 13 April 2020, were moved to 20 May 2020.

Ensure Mechanisms for Safeguarding Democracy and Political Rights

It is important that national and international stakeholders are familiar with options for deciding on and organizing transitional elections in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. The following six considerations are vital for governments and organizations that implement peacebuilding projects.

First, peacebuilding entities must ensure that mechanisms for safeguarding democracy which integrate a gender perspective and promote women’s participation in peacebuilding are in place, and the population is adequately informed about the relevance of all the measures implemented. Coordination and collaboration are vital in the current circumstances. Germany should support the national institutions in developing and implementing mechanisms of consultation between electoral management bodies, public health authorities and other relevant actors to weigh the safety and security risks, democratic implications, and constitutional constraints and procedures deriving from each scenario.

Second, when political rights are suspended due to postponed elections, governments must set clear directions that guide how institutions can proceed during the extension period, and when the normal electoral routines will be reinstated. If setting new dates is not feasible, at the minimum, the clear timetable for reassessment(s) must be provided. In conflict-affected areas the role of the international community will be crucial in ensuring that human rights and democracy won't be the collateral victims of the coronavirus. Once the state of emergency with all the deriving restrictions is lifted, coordinated diplomatic, technical, and financial assistance to national stakeholders and a long-term commitment to democratic consolidation are needed in order to avoid this scenario. German embassies should maintain, even strengthen, their capacity to assess the state of political freedoms and rights in conflict-affected states during the period of crises.

Third, restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the virus can create tensions between authorities and citizens. In such instances, peacebuilding structures can be mobilized to create spaces for dialogue and counter rumours and disinformation. The expertise, as well as the high level of trust that countries like Germany enjoy, enable them to support the crisis communication activities in multiple ways: disseminating real facts and information through their channels, moderating a bidirectional communication between state and population, and creating means for inclusive communication process.

Support Special Voting Arrangements and Provide Technical and Financial Assistance

Fourth, special voting arrangements such as postal or Internet voting could be considered as an alternative to in-person voting, while also assessing their logistical implications and feasibility in the current circumstances. Although the health hazards connected to the requirement of voting in-person would be significantly reduced, in the absence of trust and transparency and with poor infrastructural services, implementing such measures in conflict-affected countries could increase the already existing tensions. Exchange of experiences between countries, supported through international electoral assistance, will strengthen the capacity of national election authorities and promote trust in the process.

Fifth, in the extreme circumstances generated by the COVID-19 outbreak, holding elections and especially last-minute implementation of special voting arrangements might divert resources from potentially lifesaving activities. The international community should provide targeted support to such elections through technical and financial assistance to national stakeholders. Germany should favour interventions designed to link immediate responses to humanitarian and political crises with the development of sustainable and resilient electoral processes in the long run.

Adjust Electoral Assistance as Quickly and Flexibly as Possible

Lastly, crises can incentivise compromises that accelerate decisions and actions that otherwise may take a long time. Innovations that until recently seemed unconceivable may now be considered the best solution. They have the potential of becoming the new norm. It is therefore important that donor governments and peacebuilders recognise opportunities and adjust their strategies on electoral support in real time.

This article was also published in Spanish by Protagonistas, a Bolivian NGO.

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance  The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) is an intergovernmental organization with the mandate to support and advance democracy worldwide. (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn).