The Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit and the Expression, Information and Digital Rights Unit at the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria, are hosting a (virtual) conference on 29 October 2020 under the theme ‘Elections and COVID-19: Harnessing the pandemic to improve elections’.
This year, the African continent had more than 20 elections scheduled to take place and 2020 was set to be a whirlwind year of elections. From major presidential elections in Tanzania, Burundi, Malawi, Ghana and Niger, to smaller by-elections in Nigeria and Zimbabwe to mention a few. Elections are continuous processes that involve a complex interplay of activities, logistics and crowd control. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have had to halt, reconsider and postpone their elections schedules. For those states that go ahead with elections, there is the growing risk that the pandemic could be exploited to cement the control of the ruling party. Countries where the pandemic is not used politically, the ever-present threat of contracting the virus risks suppressing voter turnout, as voters opt to spend the day indoors instead of making a trip to the polls. While African states are forced to take decisive actions to curb the spread of COVID-19, these actions should not undermine the rule of law and threaten the promotion of democracy. This means governments are in a position that needs a delicate balance of preserving human rights and maintaining democratic principles.
Already, election bodies across the continent are working to make the best of the situation, crafting contingencies, redrawing their calendars, and even exploring technological solutions. The impact of technology has already been seen in public debate and political campaigns. This is particularly important in the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic where one-on-one engagement of political parties and candidates, election officials, civil society organisations (CSOs) and the electorate is discouraged. It will be interesting to see whether the twelve African countries that have suspended their elections and the seven countries yet to conduct their elections in 2022 will look to technological solutions to allow for enhanced voter engagement in the electoral process. However, challenges such as the digital divide, poor infrastructure, digital illiteracy, poverty, and suppression of online freedom of expression and access to information in authoritarian states grossly undermine the ability of many African countries to realise the opportunities presented by the digital space. Further, the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation online compromises meaningful debate on democracy and elections that is crucial to the development of an informed electorate.
To answer these questions the Centre for Human Rights' Democracy and Civic Engagement Unit and Expression, Information and Digital Rights Unit is hosting a (virtual) conference on 29 October 2020 under the theme Elections and COVID-19: Harnessing the pandemic to improve elections.
The Conference aims to start a discussion on elections, identifying the threats and opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among others, the conference will explore:
- How COVID-19 will and has affected the political process?
- How ruling parties in Africa are responding to COVID-19?
- Has the pandemic encouraged unity, or division within the political establishment?
- Case studies - exploring the unique situation in selected African countries.
- Human rights and the socio-legal ramifications of postponed elections.
- Feasibility of technological solutions for enhanced voter participation in Africa
- Opportunities and challenges for electoral deliberation in Africa’s digital space.
If approved, the abstract must be developed into a draft paper by 5 October 2020.
The best papers will be published in the African Human Rights Journal to be released in 2021.
 IDEA ‘Global overview of COVID-19: Impact on elections’ https://www.idea.int/news-media/multimedia-reports/global-overview-covid-19-impact-elections (accessed 14 July 2020).
 CIPESA ‘State of internet freedom in Africa 2019: Mapping trends in government internet controls, 1999-2019’ (2019) https://cipesa.org/fifafrica/2019-state-of-internet-freedom-in-africa-report-launched-african-countries-are-broadening-control-over-the-internet/ (accessed 14 July 2020).
 C Wardle & H Derakhshan ‘Information disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making’ (2017) 4.
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