Is it possible to find a sweet spot between politics and the Covid-19 Pandemic? That is a pertinent question as Tanzania and Uganda pick the baton of East Africa's staggered election calendar. Tanzania is scheduled to hold its presidential polls on October 28. Uganda will follow, with its own presidential and local government elections, sometime between January and February 2021.
In both cases, Covid-19 represents both opportunity and risk. As has been demonstrated by Uganda, Covid-19 restrictions confer an advantage upon incumbency while raising the bar even higher for the opposition. From a public health perspective, in settings where there is so little information about the extent of Covid-19 infiltration in the community, the possibility of political canvassing triggering exponential spread, is a real threat.
The immediate policy challenge is how to allow a critical aspect of democratic expression to proceed in a credible manner without assuming the attendant social risk.
Uganda has proposed a "scientific election," a term still so vague that when viewed against the conduct of state organs raises valid questions about the fairness of the process. Long before Covid-19 came on to the scene, access to media by the Opposition was always a fortuitous experience. Even now, while religious congregations and opposition parties cannot hold meetings, functionaries of the ruling National Resistance Movement not only have unfettered access to the media but also public spaces. In that respect, Covid-19 restrictions are not only reinforcing a long-established culture of unfair competition but also serve the interests of incumbency.
Despite spreading discontent over the relentless attack against personal freedoms, in both circumstantial and literal terms, the ground in Tanzania is still slanted in favour of the deeply entrenched independence party, Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM). Following a brief lockdown, Tanzania has announced the Covid-19 crisis officially over and two-month period of political canvassing will start on August 28.
A key test for the organisers of elections in both Tanzania and Uganda will be to break the cycle of contested outcomes. The youth bulge in both countries means that you are likely to have huge numbers of young aspirants, backed by ranks of equally ambitious and angry youth, eager to have a hand in determining how their future will be shaped.
The unusual configuration of demographics, divergent interests and circumstances makes the coming polls delicate. Where opportunity allows such as in Uganda, a longer campaign period during which aspirants can conduct more but smaller community-hall style campaign meetings, might serve the interests of democracy and Covid-19 containment better than concepts of science that don't resonate with social reality. Covid-19 is real and the virus loves crowds. The past four months represent a modest degree of success at control in that the number of cases has been kept below even the most optimistic projections.
But this no guarantee that infections cannot rebound. Consensus needs to be built around measures that support both effective political canvassing and public safety and health.