Ethiopia’s Election Faces Uncertainty Amidst Covid-19
By Bileh Jelan
Addis Abeba, March 25/2020 (Addis Standard) – Uncertainty surrounds Ethiopia’s 2020 general election as the country steps up its efforts to contain COVID-19 and the national electoral board faces delays in some of its operations.
Sources close to the election process being undertaken by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) told Addis Standard that measures announced by the federal government as well as the Board’s delay in the recruitment process of poll workers, particularly voter registration officials, are “likely to have a significant impact in delaying the election,” scheduled to take place on August 29, 2020.
On March 24, in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, the Council of Ministers has passed a decision for majority of the federal government employees to work from home until further notice. Following the decision ministries of the federal government and institutions accountable to them have subsequently announced a significant reduction in their in-office work forces. Prior that, the government has suspended schools throughout the country. The decision by the Council was also shortly followed by a decision by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education to temporarily close all universities. Earlier in the same day, Ethiopia has confirmed the 12th patient who tested positive for the virus.
On March 20 NEBE, led by its chairperson Birtukan Mideska, has held a consultative meeting with political parties representatives, including representatives from the ruling party, Prosperity Party (PP) at Hyatt Regency Hotel in Addis Abeba, on the impact of COVID-19 and its “threat on electoral operations and important measures that could be taken to mitigate.”
In the meeting NEBE presented a document outlining “the potential impact of COVID-19 situation on the administration of the 2020 general elections in Ethiopia… with a particular focus on the voter registration operation and related activities scheduled to start in the coming weeks.” Sources who spoke to Addis Standard on conditions of anonymity say that the Board is “significantly behind its schedule” in recruitment of poll workers, scheduled to take place from 25 January to 30 March.
The document presented at the meeting discussing the impacts of COVID-19 stated that NEBE “acknowledges the risks involved in moving forward with the electoral process, both from a public safety standpoint (e.g. spreading the virus) and operational standpoint (e.g., disruptions to the global supply chain, delivery of polling materials, etc.). At the same time, significant delays to an already-tight timeline may result in delays to voter registration & even polling.”
The Board’s document also presented a table outlining the impact of a two week delay on the voter registration process. “It is important to note that a delay to any of the below activities would have a knock-on effect [on] the launch of the voter registration at the end of April, making it difficult if not impossible, to meet the announced date.”
With regard to coordination with the national authorities & international partners as next step measure outlined in the document, NEBE cautioned that it was important to note that international partners were taking institutional measures such as remote working or repatriating most of their staff, “which will have significant impact on their technical & financial assistance.” “Additionally, given the global health crisis, there is significant risk that fund earmarked for elections support globally can re0purposed to support humanitarian & health support, the Ethiopian elections international support may considerably diminish as a result.”
In June 2019, UNDP and NEBE signed a USD 40 million project document to support the election in Ethiopia.
A news report published on Ethio-Election, a web portal dedicated to track electoral news and information, quoted its sources within the Board that a significant number of employees of foreign agencies (international partners) working with NEBE to support the election process have returned to their respective countries due to developments related to COVID-19, while those who are still in Ethiopia are working from home. “Some have left for their countries and others are still trying to find flights,” Ethio-Election website quoted its anonymous sources from within NEBE.
Some of the political parties’ representatives who took part in the consultative meeting on March 20 have said it should be postponed while others said it was better to monitor the situation. There was no conclusive outcome and the Board said it will continue having similar consultations with all stakeholders,” Dawud Ibssa, Chairman of the opposition Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), told Addis Standard.