Elections and democracy in Africa

Spread This News

COUNTRIES like Zimbabwe have been holding periodic elections for more than three decades since the fall of colonial empires, while most countries in West Africa only started to go to the polls in the nineties, having been mainly under military regimes. That includes the 1983 to 1987 regime of the legendary Burkinabe revolutionary Thomas Sankara. For all his popularity and fame, his rule was never put to the vote.
In Southern Africa, countries like Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi for many years experimented with one party state politics, while Mozambique and Angola did not have elections for a long time because of protracted civil wars. Kenya was also a one party state until the early nineties. The DRC also had decades of civil war, and the first democratic elections were only first held just about a decade ago.
Now elections are being held in most parts of Africa, and party competition has often been used to describe whether or not a country is “a democracy”.
In spite of the continent having shifted towards multi-party elections, not many people in Africa seem to take elections seriously. Many political pundits have claimed that elections are not exactly the same as democracy, and perhaps rightly so.
Countries like Ghana, Zambia and Malawi where elections have ousted ruling parties are often easily classified as “democracies,” while countries where elections have repeatedly re-installed the same ruling party are said to be merely practising “Electoralism”.
This has been more so for countries where leadership of the ruling party has not changed over the years, like Zimbabwe and, until recently, Angola. There is now the concept of intra-party regime change, and inter-party regime change; and it appears the idea of inter-party regime change appeals to some people as more democratic than the other option.
Generally, “Electoralism” is a derogatory term alluding to mere electoral procedural formalities devoid of merit. The 2013 Zimbabwe elections were roundly described as peaceful and orderly by observers, but there has been scepticism underlying the assertion that such orderly elections necessarily produce democracies.
The distrust of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) by opposition politicians in the country is largely based on the fact that orderly elections have not necessarily resulted in regime change, and by extension this is seen as a betrayal of democracy. Such criticism is quite misleading. It is self-centred.Advertisement

Sceptics often underestimate the fact that there can be no democracy without elections, and that only formally correct elections can legitimise any form of democratic regime.
In his 2006 study on the “Power of Elections” in Africa, Staffan Lindberg underpins the argument of electoral legitimacy by sampling 232 multi-party elections in 44 African countries.
He concluded the following:
–        Elections are not the culminating points of democratic regime changes; rather, they promote the liberalisation of regimes.
–        Elections are self-reinforcing in the sense of becoming better each time they are held. Statistics show that regime collapse becomes rather unlikely after three multi-party elections.
–        Elections help civil and political liberties to become more firmly institutionalised.
The first question we want to ask is whether or not elections are an indication of liberalisation. From a constitutional perspective they are, and this is why it is hard to fault a country like Zimbabwe in terms of observing the rule of law.
There are many countries that have, in history, summarily suspended constitutions after an unfavourable election outcome, or that have suspended the counting of votes, or have decided against holding elections when they are due, for fear of an unfavourable outcome. All this could easily be seen as betrayal of the principles of liberalisation, as is indeed the case.
I do not know if elections have necessarily had a self-improving quality in Zimbabwe, but I find it hard to dismiss them as mere procedure with no impact on the concept of democracy itself. I personally would argue that elections have had an intrinsic value to the country, resulting in the formation of so many opposition political parties as we see today. Generally, they have given us a reliable indicator of the will of the people, in spite of the criticism that often come with each plebiscite.
It is not exactly correct to simplistically argue that better carried out elections improve the quality of democracy. Such a mono-causal argument may well be a fallacy, as we just saw with the ascendancy of Donald Trump into the White House.
The democratic culture of a regime can only be determined in the period between elections, not exactly during electioneering. Secondly the quality and consolidation of democracy is far more complex than a mere election result. There are just far too many other factors involved in the concept of democracy apart from just going to an election.
There is this temptation to roundly describe politics in Africa in terms of arcane informal practices, ignoring formal democratic institutions, and the role they play in shaping the concept of democracy on the African political landscape. Foreign analysts often frown upon African political think tanks; ditto other formal institutions like electoral commissions or anti-corruption commissions – often dismissed as apparatus of the state machinery.
We have heard a lot about the opposition in Zimbabwe demanding electoral reforms, and indeed there have been far reaching changes to the constitution to accommodate some of these demands.
Apart from demanding affirmatively unfriendly changes to the ruling party, the opposition has not exactly justified most of its demands. That brings the argument that the ruling Zanu-PF would be politically stupid to legislate itself out power.
It would appear like there is widespread ignorance on possible alternative systems, apart from fighting over whom should be responsible for the implementation of such and such a change or policy.
Those involved in the clamouring for electoral reforms are not certain of the outcome of the said reforms – a good example being that the demand for the 2008 polling station-based counting and announcing of elections has resulted in the complication of how this practice undermines the privacy and anonymity of the vote itself, allegedly exposing the voter to post-election victimisation or intimidation.
Many examples abound of opposition parties that clamoured for electoral reforms, won elections, only to reinstate the old electoral laws after realising that they would work better for their own interests.
The way the MDC manages elections internally does not tally well with its demands for electoral reforms at the national level. Candidates have been imposed; election results have been overruled, the voting process has been manipulated many times, and due elections have been postponed indefinitely, just like the party constitution has been changed to suit the needs of those threatened by constitutional requirements.
This is not to say these malpractices are unheard of in Zanu-PF, but it must be noted that Zanu-PF is not clamouring for national electoral reforms. Electoral reforms sponsored from outside have been disastrous for Africa, and where they have failed protracted instability has often resulted, like in Somalia.
Some people have argued that Anglophone African countries should switch from simple majority voting to proportional representation as is done in South Africa and Namibia. Most African countries are multi-ethnic, and elections in these countries are often just another form of carrying out tribal censuses for people over the age of eighteen. This is the challenge the continent has, even in South Africa itself.
A lot has been said about intimidation and violence as relates to elections in Africa. Of course the major perpetrators of violence in the context of elections are generally political parties trying to influence the outcome of elections.
Parties in government, rebel parties, as well as formal opposition parties have all in the past been implicated in acts of violence. Of course ruling parties are often put on the international spotlight because they typically have an unfair advantage of wielding state power.
There are documented cases of inter-party use of violence for countries like Kenya (1992, 1997, 2002, 2007), Tanzania (2000, 2015), and Zimbabwe (2002, 2005, 2008). While some acts of political violence have been spontaneous, it has largely been found that most of the violence is planned and orchestrated, especially by the youth wings of political parties.
Reticence on the part of leaders of political parties and those in government has been seen as silent endorsement for acts of violence, and some would argue that the peaceful 2013 Zimbabwe election was purely a result of the public call against any form of violence by President Robert Mugabe. The same has been argued in the case of Kenya’s December 2013 elections.
Voting is essential for democracy, but there is no voting system that can be said to be collectively the best for all societies. Even in its most radical form, for example, a first-past-the-post voting system (a plurality voting system in constituencies with only one member of parliament) does not necessarily prevent fragmentation of the party system.
Conversely, it is possible for systems of proportional representation to have only two or three political parties. In different societal and politico institutional settings, the purported pros and cons of electoral systems can have totally different impacts.
The impact of an electoral system depends to a large extend on the social context of the country involved. There has to be a balance between socio-political diversity and the need to recognise a stable majority. There is always this danger of the tyranny of the majority, which in reality could end up in xenophobic tendencies.
Electoral systems borrowed from Western countries by fanciful admirers are not exactly going to work the same way they do in the West when applied in the African context. What matters most is that an electoral system should suit the societal context of the place where the election is held. All interlinked factors must as much as possible be taken into consideration. Every voting system must be designed to help to resolve complex political problems, not to exacerbate them.
We in Zimbabwe have laboriously put together a variety of elements into our electoral law, and the challenge we now have is to give a fair chance of trying this law out.
We will always have new voting systems proposed, but we must find ourselves in terms of what is best for our country.
Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!
REASON WAFAWAROVA is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia.