A few days prior to its general election day in Vanuatu in March, the volcano on Tanna island showed increased activity and an earthquake hit the country. Cyclone Gretel followed and impacted distribution of electoral materials. During reconciliation and results announcement, Cyclone Harold passed by causing widespread devastation. In addition, Vanuatu is challenged by its remote location with limited procurement/imports. In 2019, when Vanuatu scheduled their general election for 19 March 2020, they had considered all of the above, but they never imagined –that a global pandemic would hit us all
When the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Coronavirus (COVID-19) as a Public Health Emergency of international concern, the government of Vanuatu established a COVID-19 National Task Force to advise government authorities and coordinate their response. Eight days before polling day, WHO recognised the outbreak as a pandemic. Vanuatu was faced with the difficult choice of holding or postponing elections. While the safety of citizens was critical, so was their right to vote in a free and fair election.
As part of Vanuatu Electoral Environment Project (VEEP), UNDP was embedded in the Electoral Office and was actively providing technical assistance and capacity building to the Electoral Management Body (EMB). While the risks were high, with considered measures and little imagination, we helped Vanuatu to hold elections successfully. Here are five lessons that we learnt –
1. Collaboration is key to handle complexity
In the absence of established protocols and wide preventive measures in place countrywide, we encouraged the Electoral Office to work closely with the COVID1-9 taskforce. We facilitated direct contact with WHO officers who were embedded in the Ministry of Health. This ensured a continuous dialogue between the EMB and the government health authorities along with transfer of scientific and up to date information. VEEP also liaised with United Nations Children's Fund and the Water Resource Department to provide support in installing hand-washing stations at the 352 polling stations and procuring hand-sanitisers for all polling kits. Being in continuous consultation with various national authorities helped identify potential risks and develop measures to mitigate them.
2. Activating local networks critical for procuring PPE and producing sanitisers
In the absence of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), we reached out to medical clinics to buy their excess stock of masks and gloves. One medical clinic had spare supplies and donated it to us. They also recommended reaching out to hardware stores to purchase glasses that were provided to Electoral Officers and electoral commissioners to prevent rubbing of eyes. With increased demand of sanitiser and minimal stock available in Port Vila, the best way forward was to produce our own disinfectant. We contacted a local rum distillery for using their alcohol solution. Using a WHO-prescribed recipe for local production, we made sanitisers in containers which was finally distributed via dispensers bought off the local market. None of this would have been possible if we hadn’t reached out to local stakeholders for their support.
3. Building clear protocols crucial for handling electoral material
As the quarantine was declared in Futuna and Tanna islands, proper handling of the electoral materials retrieved from those areas was necessary. In tandem with the Task Force, a protocol was quickly established. Sealed ballot boxes were received by the maritime police officers using gloves and masks. They were stored in a separate area of the patrol boat and shipped to the capital. On arrival, the boxes were sanitized. Finally, they were sent to the Electoral Commission and handled with PPE by the operators. This protocol was recognised by the COVID-19 Task Force and implemented with clear instructions shared with variety of actors (electoral officers, police officer, and medical teams). Such protocols formed the spine of our operations.
4. Disseminating best practice through all/multiple channels
Keeping good distance of two meters between people was repeatedly enforced at all locations as well as through media channels. There were radio announcements, bulk SMS texts and clear instructions that went out from Electoral Office to all presiding officers prior to election day.
5. Willingness to do things differently
International observers are key to a fair election. As the arrival of international observers (regional organizations and MPs from Australia and New Zealand were accredited to observe) was cancelled last minute, the electoral authorities encouraged in-country diplomatic missions to observe the election. UNDP supported accreditation for the diplomatic personnel and developed a detailed observer briefing.
Announcements of results was done during a state of emergency. As gatherings of more than five persons were forbidden, the verification of results was live streamed on the national TV channel and Vanuatu Electoral Office’s Facebook page. For the first time, the general public watched the work of the electoral commission enhancing the transparency of the process.
While these practices felt new and risky, they were also the need of the hour and added incredible value through leveraging local resources and support. As Niue goes into election this month (May), and Palau will soon follow, these lessons are more important now than ever.
For any questions, please contact Anne-Sofie Gerhard, Vanuatu Electoral Environent Project Manager, email: email@example.com
This piece was produced by UNDP – VEEP in collaboration with the UNDP Accelerator Lab Pacific