Elections in a Pandemic: The Case of Cabo Verde

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Hailed as a democratic example on the African continent, Cabo Verde recently went through its seventh round of multi-party parliamentary elections, which took place on April 18. While six political parties were competing for the 72 seats in the country’s National Assembly, in reality, the election was a two horse race between the two major parties, the incumbent Movement for Democracy (MPD) and the main opposition party, the African Party for the Independence of Cabo Verde (PAICV). Ultimately, when votes were tallied, it transpired that the electorate preferred the status quo rather than a change in government.

The electoral process had been free and fair—with minor faults that do not compromise the integrity of the process. Yet, the electoral campaigning that preceded the votes might have caused severe consequences in community public health. After a month of campaigning (the two weeks that are legally scheduled were preceded by a couple of weeks of informal electioneering), Cabo Verde has seen its number of COVID-19 infections rise. This article argues that electioneering in a fragile state can be a serious public health issue during a pandemic when basic social distancing rules are not followed.

Electoral Democracy in Cabo Verde

Cabo Verde, a former Portuguese colony, became independent in 1975, with the African Party for the Independence of Guinea[-Bissau] and Cabo Verde at the country’s helm. The PAIGC, having led a successful armed liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau, instituted a one-party rule system in both West African states. Ultimately, the plan for a political unification of Cabo Verde and Guinea-Bissau was shattered by the coup d’état in Bissau in November 1980. The Cabo Verdean wing of the PAIGC responded by rebranding themselves as the PAICV.

By the end of the 1980s, it was clear that the one-party state in Africa was in decay. Changes in the global order, the decaying legitimacy of eastern European communism, and the mounting resistance from African civil society, undermined the sustainability of the one-party state difficult. As the winds of the third wave of democratization swept across West Africa, Cabo Verde became of the first country’s in the region to engage in what was locally described as abertura (openness).

Democratization in Cabo Verde was carefully designed through a pact between the incumbent (PAICV) and the two main opposition groups (MPD and UCID, the Independent and Democratic Cabo Verdean Union). In the founding elections of January 13, 1991, UCID did not participate, and as the opposition converged behind MPD, the PAICV incurred a humiliating and devastating defeat.

This electoral feat was repeated in 1996 – the 1990s was indeed the decade of the MPD. The first two elections (1991 and 1996) generated an MPD a super-majority in the parliament, with the authority to design and implement its policies. The PAICV were unable to exert any type of veto power. The PAICV returned to power in 2001, however, and the peaceful transition of government was an indication of a consolidated democracy. The MPD then recaptured power in 2016.

Since the early 2000s, party politics in Cabo Verde aligns well with what has been called the cartel party system, with the PAICV and MPD monopolizing state resources to their political advantage, who then pit those resources against any significant attempts by a third party to enter the political arena. It is important to note that since the elections of 2001, no party has ever able to secure a super-majority. Electoral politics since that time has only generated simple majorities.

The Elections in a Pandemic

By May of 2020, the first cases of the COVID-19 virus infection were registered in the islands of Cabo Verde. This pandemic drove the government to pass several rules and other regulations designed to curb the spread of the virus, such as social distancing and the use of masks in public. As the country was entering into another cycle of elections, it became clear that the process had to conform with

the rules and norms of public safety. The National Electoral Commission (CNE), as the supervising institution of the electoral process, also developed measures to lessen the possible spread of the virus during the campaigns and thus protect public health. The CNE had political parties agree to a pact designed to limit and curb the typical electoral activities, such as mass rallies and walks.

Election campaigns proved that the pays légal and the pays réel were two distinct realities, however. Though several public health rules were established, institutional fragility translated into an incapacity and/or unwillingness to enforce them. Political actors, chiefly the dominant ones, acted deceitfully to escape the norms they initially agreed to. Caution was thrown out of the window when the campaign period initiated.

In stark contrast to COVID-19 electoral success stories such as South Korea, mass meetings, chiefly organized by the incumbent MPD and the main opposition PAICV, were common — and often featured large numbers of participants without face masks.

In other words, common sense was put to one side during the worst pandemic in the postcolonial history of Cabo Verde. Consequently, the country suffered the cost of its lax adherence to COVID-19 regulations. The number of infections increased dramatically, placing the islands twentieth globally in terms of the number of cases per million citizens during the electoral period.

The graph below indicates that new cases began to increase when the parliamentary election period was initiated. The total number of cases peaked on May 10, roughly three weeks after the election day. During the electoral cycle period (the month before and after the election day), the highest number of COVID 19-related deaths occurred. On three different days (April 12, 26, and May 13), the total deaths was 5 – when in preceding months, the norm was one or two deaths per day.

Political actors clearly were aware of this possible consequence. An electoral win is a prize that can often obfuscate other objectives. In recent years, Cabo Verde has increasingly become a neo-patrimonial democracy; that is to say, to control the state is to be in complete control of its resources, which are distributed to “comrades, clients, and cousins”, according to the formula suggested by Gerhard Seibert. The logic of neo-patrimonial democracy guides the political behaviour of the party leaders and sympathizers alike.

Many factors explain the obsession with electioneering which is focused on mass meetings and rallies. Electoral politics is informed by the notion that the Cabo Verdean electorate is guided by the bandwagon effect, that is, that they are likely to be mobilized and influenced on how to vote depending on what/who they observe as a successful party/candidate. The number of followers and sympathizers is taken to be a clear proxy for success.

In past elections, it was common for party sympathizers and activists to discuss which party could bring in the most significant number of people to their rallies and other electoral activities. Thus, there is a clear focus on the number/size of meetings, and so mass rallies are typically party’s chosen strategy to attract voters. These rallies tend to last for hours and resemble a musical festival. Usually, singers and bands are invited to perform at these events. Music and political messages are uttered by political leaders, and people are thus weaved together.  

Another explanation as to why large meetings was common during the campaigning period had to do with relatively low levels of trust between the two main parties (MPD and PAICV). Guided by the logic of prisoner’s dilemma, parties and candidates of all political stripes feared that observing the rules could cost them the electoral victory, because they assumed their opponents would be sure to break them.

Parties and candidates operating on the basis of full rationality—maximizing their political visibility and thus hoping to attract voters to their side—therefore resulted in a rather irrational outcome for the community as a whole.

Democracy and public health

Electioneering in a fragile state may constitute a public health issue during a pandemic crisis, if public institutions are not strong enough to enforce social distancing rules.

The case of electoral campaigning in Cabo Verde is an illustrative example. While other elections such as that in Malawi and South Korea do not appear to have had a significant impact on COVID-19 numbers, and strict measures are not being put in place in Zambia, the situation in Cabo Verde has been rather different. The willingness of leaders and political parties to put public health at risk in order to amplify their public visibility and, ipso facto, their appeal to the voters caused the number of COVID-19 virus infections to skyrocket, chiefly in major urban areas.

It is important to note that in absolute terms, the situation in Cabo Verde could be seen as unalarming. Total cases of COVID-19 infections are in the low thirty thousands, and the total number of COVID-19 related death is less than 300. At its peak, less than 500 new cases were reported.

However, when relative indexes are used, it becomes clear that election in Cabo Verde caused cases to increase. On the African continent, Cabo Verde is second only to South Africa when it comes to the ratio of total cases per one million citizens: it has seen one of the highest ratios of infections, with more than ten percent of the population reported to have had COVID-19 at one point. Cabo Verde is also the fifth highest African country in terms of deaths per one million people (close to 0.1% of the population).

The COVID-19 crisis is particularly significant because it led to an exhaustion of public health resources. In early May, a number of hospitals were reporting that their resources, including oxygen, were close to being depleted. Around that time, the Health National Director, Jorge Barreto, is quoted to have said that the situation in Cabo Verde is “serious [and] it is not under control.” 

Given that other pandemic crises are likely to affect the globe in the near future, it is urgent for small states like Cabo Verde to start thinking critically about the extent that competitive elections may pose a serious threat to public health if democratic institutions are not strengthened to discipline political parties.

Abel Djassi Amado is currently an assistant professor of political science and international relations at Simmons University (Boston, USA). He researches the language and politics nexus in West Africa.    

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