Africa: Elections expose democracy's fault line

NEW YORK — More than a month after its presidential election, Ivory Coast remains in political crisis. The incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, refuses to leave office, though the official vote count shows that he lost to opposition leader Alassane Ouattara.

The country is teetering on the brink of civil war. Gbagbo remains defiant, rejecting calls for him to step down from the United Nations, the African Union, the United States and many others. Now the West African economic group, Ecowas, is trying to persuade Gbagbo to leave office.

Across Africa, more than 11 countries held presidential elections in 2010 and additional countries held parliamentary elections or referendums. Twenty-five elections will be held across Africa in 2011.

Conventional wisdom among political analysts has generally pointed to elections as a sign of political progress. But the outcome of African elections, both in 2010 and in the recent past, reveal a more complicated picture.

Many of last year’s presidential elections returned incumbents to power, under circumstances that did not meet the international community’s bar for “free and fair” elections.

In April, Sudan’s citizens voted in a presidential election that was boycotted by the majority of opposition parties. Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, was re-elected president.

In June, Burundi went to the polls, and elected Pierre Nkurunziza, the incumbent, with 92 percent of the vote. The opposition boycotted the election, a move that was widely criticized by analysts as a sign of their failure to mature from rebel groups to legitimate political parties.

Even in credible elections, the opposition's showing was weak. In August, Rwandan President Paul Kagame was voted in for a second term, receiving 93 percent of the vote. In Tanzania’s presidential election in October, the sitting president, Jakaya Kikwete, won with 61 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was low.

In three polls, Somaliland, Guinea and Ivory Coast, opposition leaders were voted into power. The victors in Somaliland and Guinea assumed office; Ivory Coast now teeters on the edge of renewed civil war.

Unfortunately, the Ivory Coast situation, in which an incumbent president refuses to leave office after losing an election — call it “election denial” — is not an unfamiliar one in Africa. In 2007, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki refused to cede office to candidate Raila Odinga in an election that was marred by fraud but widely believed to have been won by Odinga. After months of violence and mediation by former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Kibaki and Odinga formed a power-sharing government.

In 2008, after a disputed election with clear evidence of fraud, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe refused to step down and allow opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai to assume the presidency. In the ensuing political crisis, another power-sharing agreement was forged, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister.

Both Kenya and Zimbabwe’s power-sharing agreements have “ended in stagnation, infighting, and political deadlock,” wrote Elizabeth Dickinson in Foreign In fact unwieldy unions are faring so badly that few are suggesting such an unwieldy coalition to solve the Ivory Coast crisis.

Yet some analysts see reason for hope in recent electoral trends. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the number of coups in Africa has dropped from 20, in the 1980s, to 7, in this decade. South Africa, Botswana, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Liberia, among others on the continent, have all held successful elections in the last five years.

Research conducted by Barak D. Hoffman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University, shows that the outcome of Ghana’s 2008 presidential election was not caused by ethnic bloc voting, a common assumption in sub-Saharan African elections.

Instead, Ghanaians voted based on their perception of the relative merits of each political party. The election, which was won by John Atta Mills by a margin of less than 1 percent of the vote, is hailed as one of the most successful in Africa in recent years.

Going forward, experts say the way in which elections are conducted needs to be given careful attention. For instance, many international stakeholders tend to support the immediate pre-election process, and then leave directly after the poll. Almami Cyllah, regional director for Africa at International Foundation for Electoral Systems, argues that the United States and other stakeholders need to provide “long-term support to the electoral cycle as a whole.”

Political scientist Roland Elly Wanda said that because of low literacy levels across the continent, many Africans cannot participate fully in the electoral process. He believes that electoral commissions need to be supervised by the legislative or judicial branches of government, rather than by the executive.

And some diplomats, politicians, and analysts encourage a decrease in the focus on elections as a sign of political progress among Western powers.

During his visit to Ghana in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama said that “democracy is about more than just holding elections.” Though this is certainly true, many Africa experts do believe that elections are a necessary part of the path to democracy.

“While elections do not constitute democracy," said Cyllah, "representative democracy is not achievable without elections.”