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Opinion: Many elections on the continent are neither free nor fair.
Both Kenya and Zimbabwe’s power-sharing agreements have “ended in stagnation, infighting, and political deadlock,” wrote Elizabeth Dickinson in Foreign Policy.com. 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.”