Election observation put to a test as African borders slowly re-open

Africa is holding a number of important elections in the next few months. Presidential elections are scheduled in Seychelles (24 October), Tanzania (28 October), Côte d’Ivoire (31 October), Burkina Faso (22 November), Ghana (7 December) and the Central African Republic (27 December). Those in Guinea took place on 18 October.

Several of these polls are taking place in a highly contentious political atmosphere amid a narrowing political space.

Yet in many countries the travel restrictions linked to COVID-19 are making it difficult for the African Union (AU) and others to organise large-scale international election observation missions.

This comes at a time when the usefulness and credibility of election observation is increasingly being questioned.

Some opposition parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) say local observation teams are sufficient and that short-term missions that jet into the country for a few days to observe a small number of polling stations are essentially a waste of time. In addition, these missions often get it wrong and play into the hands of incumbent governments.

Election experts say international observer teams have produced a wealth of research on the management of elections

Election experts, however, say international observer teams have produced a wealth of research on the management of elections. They play an important role in supporting democratic processes and should be seen as tools to improve the quality of Africa’s polls, rather than a stamp of approval from outside bodies on the fairness of the outcomes.

For this to happen, they need to observe elections and the electoral playing field over a long period of time. Follow-up missions in-between elections are also crucial to make sure their recommendations are implemented.

The question can be asked, however, why Africa is still struggling with flawed elections after several decades of election observation. In most cases, the problem lies with a lack of political will to implement reforms and ensure credible elections.

Challenges posed by COVID-19 restrictions

While most countries in Africa have lifted COVID-19 lockdowns, travel restrictions are still in place in several countries, hampering travel across the continent and further afield.

The AU, which has a unit in the Political Affairs Department to deal with observation, has also been forced to move a lot of its activities online due to COVID-19.

According to election specialists, it is unlikely that the continent will see any large AU observation missions in the coming months. However, smaller missions are envisaged by the AU and regional economic communities that will be scheduled on a case-by-case basis. These will be either smaller technical missions or political missions consisting of high-profile individuals.

It is unlikely that the continent will see any large AU observation missions in the coming months

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has, for example, been active in the run-up to the polls in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire. A joint AU–United Nations (UN) mission visited Côte d’Ivoire in early October and an ECOWAS–AU–UN team went on a solidarity mission to Guinea ahead of the polls.

In both countries there has been political upheaval owing to the third-term bids of presidents Alassane Ouattara and Alpha Conde, respectively. The aim of the two missions was to try to prevent political violence ahead of and after these polls. According to ECOWAS, it hopes to ensure credible, transparent and inclusive elections by making recommendations in this regard to all the political actors involved.

An AU team of 25 observers also arrived in Guinea the day before voting and was set to stay in the country until 25 October, according to a statement by AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat.

In Côte d’Ivoire the opposition has called for a UN mission to certify the elections, as it did in the contested December 2011 polls, but it seems unlikely at this stage.

While these high-level missions might play a significant role, the downside is that they rarely produce publicly accessible reports and therefore the lessons learnt could go to waste.

Innovative solutions to observe elections remotely

Meanwhile, restrictions on opposition political activity and CSOs in Tanzania have increased tensions ahead of the presidential polls at the end of October.

President John Magufuli is attempting a second term, but critics say the political playing field is far from level. Legislation passed during Magufuli’s five years in office has made it difficult to ensure free political activity. Tanzania’s constitution also does not provide for legal challenges to the outcome of the presidential poll – one of several issues that have spurred a call for electoral reforms.

Despite the narrowing of the political space, a number of smaller outside observer missions have been permitted in Tanzania. CSOs are also attempting alternative observation methods via social media.

The Tanzania Election Watch, for example, led by an organisation based in Kenya, has drawn attention by nominating a team of ‘eminent persons’ from the region that has been very active online with statements and engagements on the political situation in the run-up to the polls.

Authoritarian regimes are, in the main, finding it more and more difficult to prevent opposition activity in a digital era

This is seen by traditional observer groups as something of an experiment, but could provide interesting lessons for future elections in Africa. Authoritarian regimes are, in the main, finding it more and more difficult to prevent opposition activity in a digital era.

Is international observation key to democratic elections?

One of the main questions currently being asked is whether local observation does not suffice for a country to hold elections that live up to the standards of its citizens.

The events in Kenya in 2017 and Malawi in 2018 have led many critics to question the usefulness of electoral observer missions in Africa. In both cases the initial outcomes of the polls were approved by observers from the AU, and the European Union in the case of Malawi, but local courts then overturned the results, saying the polls were not free and fair.

In Kenya the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta was confirmed by the second round of polls, two months after the courts threw out the results of the first elections on 8 August 2017. In Malawi, however, the second iteration of the presidential elections in early 2020 saw the win by the incumbent overturned and opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera elected. This has created some acrimony between local and international observers.

International experts point out that the rerun of the Malawi polls did not necessarily confirm that the results in the first round were flawed. The second round was run on a different basis altogether. The fact that the first-past-the-post system was scrapped in favour of a majority win in the presidential elections, as well as the large coalition around Chakwera, was actually the reason for his victory, not the rerun. 

Besides Kenya and Malawi, opposition members in many other countries complain that international observers tend to rubber-stamp flawed elections in favour of the incumbents. 

Yet experts say it is unrealistic to expect observer missions to judge the fairness of an election. Rather, they are meant to help improve electoral systems.

International observers have the added advantage of having a continental or global perspective and can assist the country with lessons and comparisons with how elections are run elsewhere. COVID-19 travel restrictions to a large extent hamper this process.

Clearly, these lessons are also only useful where there is political will to implement them.

Important role for the AU

The large number of presidential polls in the next few months will certainly be a test for democratic systems. Whether large-scale election observation takes place or not, the AU and regional bodies such as ECOWAS will have to remain involved to ensure the polls are credible and to manage any political strife related to the elections.

Going forward, the AU will also have to sharpen its observation missions to show their relevance. It will need to ensure that detailed reports on observations missions are published and in time to serve as learning tools for countries where there is genuine political will to hold free and fair elections.

Where there is a deliberate attempt to sabotage the electoral process, democratic institutions and international observers have the duty to highlight these flaws in order to ensure credible and transparent polls. The AU’s Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance is a good benchmark for use by both citizens and outside observers.

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