Around the Halls: African Elections

In the next two months, a number of African countries will hold presidential and legislative elections. Historically, many of these countries have faced challenges in their electoral process and given the fragility, these elections will prove to be a test to the uneasy political climate throughout the region. Mwangi Kimenyi, Nelipher Moyo, Julius Agbor, Melvin Ayogu, Anne Kamau and Olu Taiwo discuss the upcoming elections in Madagascar, Cameroon, Liberia, Gambia, Congo as well as the growing importance of China in Zambia, post-election.

Zambian Elections: The Growing Importance of China
Mwangi S. Kimenyi, Senior Fellow, Director, Africa Growth Initiative and Nelipher Moyo, Research Analyst

On September 20, 2011, Zambians went to the polls to elect a new president after one of the most contested election campaigns in the nation’s history.  The contest was primarily between the incumbent Rupiah ‘RB’  Banda, who represents the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), which has lead the country since its first democratic elections in 1991, and Michael “King Cobra” Sata, leader of the Patriotic Front and a former MMD member.

Mr. Banda has pointed to the country’s recent economic growth and prudent economic management as justification for why he should be re-elected. Sata seeks to reach out to unemployed youths and the poor– the constituency left behind in Zambia’s recent economic growth. Although Zambia was recently reclassified as a middle income country, many Zambians do not enjoy middle income living standards.

Mr. Sata has previously spoken out against China’s ‘exploitation’ of Zambia’s minerals and its poor labor practices. During the 2006 elections, China’s ambassador to Zambia threatened to cut diplomatic ties with Zambia if Sata was elected president. This was one of the first times that China interjected itself in the internal political affairs of an African country. While China denies providing any direct campaign assistance to Banda’s reelection bid, there is no denying the ‘made in china’ Banda campaign favors present at rallies. Some argue that this election is in fact a referendum on China, with Banda representing those Zambians in favor of closer ties and Sata representing those in favor of a more cautious approach.

Should Mr. Banda win the election, the country‘s policies will remain more or less the same.  Despite softening his stance on China, it is not clear what the implications of a Sata win would be on China-Zambia relations. Would Mr. Sata revert to his previous anti-China stance, or would he prove to be more pragmatic and continue to engage the Chinese who are important for the country’s growth?

There are two areas of concern; first, Mr. Sata is among those who supported former President Chiluba’s disgraceful third term bid. In the event of a Sata Presidency, it will be important to ensure that ‘King Cobra’ does not have a similar lapse in judgment.  Second, while Zambia has a history of peaceful elections, there are a large number of unemployed youths who can be mobilized for violence should either candidate fail to concede the election. It will be important for both candidates to put the interests of the country above their own.

Sustaining a Stable Post-Elections Democracy is the Crucial Challenge Facing Madagascar
Julius Agbor, Africa Research Fellow, Africa Growth Initiative

The 2011 presidential and parliamentary elections in Madagascar have been postponed three times since the beginning of the year, due to the unfavorable political climate in the country. As has been the tradition in the past, presidential elections in Madagascar have raised ethnic tensions, whereas parliamentary elections have generally taken place smoothly. Whether or not the forthcoming Malagasy election will be free and fair seems not to be the main problem. The critical challenge facing the country is sustaining a stable post-elections democratic government, considering the high degree of ethnic polarization that has characterized Malagasy politics since 1990 and has led to the frequent deposition of democratically elected Presidents. Ethnic tensions between the coastal Betsimisaraka tribe of long serving former President Didier Ratsiraka, and the highland Merina tribe of recently deposed President Marc Ravalomanana, have often polarized Malagasy political debates, fueling violent anti-government demonstrations that frequently paralyze state institutions. A recent episode is the military-backed uprising in March 2009 that led to the deposition of democratically elected President Ravalomanana’s government and the institution of a High Transitional Authority led Andry Rajoelina. Ravalomanana, who was in the third year of his second and last five-year term in office, engaged the country in an aggressive economic recovery path following a 12 percent drop in GDP provoked by the 2002 political crisis. Sadly, Ravalomanana’s economic and political reforms have largely been reversed by his successor, Andry Rajoelina.

Madagascar’s polarized politics and frequent institutional and policy reversals are creating additional disincentives for investors in a country plagued by negative per capita income growth, high inflation, and staggering poverty levels. The greatest task ahead for Madagascar’s post-election would be to uphold the outcome of the November 2010 referendum in which a new constitution was endorsed.

Autocracy in Cameroon: C’est la Vie?
Melvin Ayogu, Fellow, Africa Growth Initiative

On October 9, Cameroon will hold its presidential election. Our question, and that of many Cameroonians and international observers, is if anything has changed to ensure a fair contest, since it is not apparent that the newly established electoral commission, Elections Cameroon (ELECAM), is able guarantee a just process.

Since gaining independence in 1960, Cameroon has only been led by two presidents, who are from the same political party: Ahmadou Babatoura Ahidjo for 21 years and current President Paul Biya for 29 years. Biya has also recently announced plans to run again. Beyond the obvious problem of an autocratic history, there are many other reasons to doubt that the upcoming elections will be free and fair. The system, as it currently exists, has been criticised for its ultra openness. Critics argue that it has been deliberately designed to engender too many political parties, which prevents unstructured opposition from competing with the dominant political party. In addition, there is unequal access to the media as the State owns all the bill boards and charges exorbitantly for their use – a crucial tool to the campaign apparatus in developing countries where ownership of television sets is low and electricity very limited. Lastly, the design of ELECAM is far from independent, as the President appoints members to the election board, and laws require line reporting of ELECAM activities to the state security apparatus.

The recent ban on twitter does not give much hope that Cameroon is on the way to a meaningful procedural democracy, where free and fair elections would be the norm. Without a strong commitment to the reform of ELECAM’s structure, management and control, the idea of free elections in Cameroon remains an aspiration.

Liberia Elections: Solidifying Peace or Reversion to Conflict
Mwangi S. Kimenyi, Senior Fellow, Director, Africa Growth Initiative
On October 11, Liberia will hold presidential and legislative elections. This is a critical juncture for this post-conflict country, and fair and peaceful elections will be instrumental in solidifying gains made over the last eight years since the cessation of conflict. But Liberia remains a fragile state and tensions arising from hotly contested elections could easily reverse the recent gains. A credible election process will also impact Liberia’s economic growth trajectory, especially in regard to prudent management of natural resources.  With increasing interest in oil exploration, drilling and the exploitation of other natural resources in Liberia, the election of a leader who is not committed to improving governance could expose the country to natural resource curse.

The incumbent president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has been in power nearly six years and will face 15 other presidential candidates. Early in her term in office, President Sirleaf commanded broad support and there has been significant progress in consolidating peace and improving the economy.  She has been particularly successful in forging a positive post-war image for the country internationally.  However, her administration is increasingly facing criticisms for its failure to effectively deal with rising poverty, youth unemployment and corruption.  The president is also being criticized for failing to devolve powers of what is considered an imperial presidency.

The upcoming Liberian elections promise to be most hotly contested in the country’s history. With a crowded field of presidential hopefuls, it is unlikely that any single candidate will receive the minimum proportion of votes required for an outright win. Thus, a runoff election is almost certain. Already the election campaigns have fractured the society along various axes of identification. Given the fragility of the security situation in Liberia, these elections could trigger widespread violence.  The African Union and the broader international community must be prepared to assist in the electoral process and beef up security so as to prevent a replay of the recent Ivory Coast scenario.

The Gambia: Free and Fair Elections
Anne Kamau, Africa Research Fellow, Africa Growth Initiative

On November 24, 2011, The Republic of The Gambia will hold its fourth democratic presidential elections. The current president, who was elected by the popular majority, is seeking a fourth term. The opposition sees these elections as a defining moment for the future of Gambia, with the president’s reelection results bringing either the establishment or the end of a monarchy. The international community and missionaries have expressed concerns about the conduct surrounding the elections, including the voter registration process and the issuing of old identification cards. Observers are concerned that foreigners from Guinea Bissau are being registered to vote in Gambia. Natives have also expressed concern that a repeat of the turmoil that followed elections in neighboring Ivory Coast will occur in Gambia if the election process is marred by fraud. As the election date draws near, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is challenged to oversee the free and fair elections and significant progress has been made to ensure this happens. However, the political undertones remain tense, with opposition not openly campaigning and fearing terror if they lose. It is evident that citizens desire a change, but the incumbent president will not relinquish power willingly. Gambia deserves the urgent attention of the world to oversee a peaceful process of free and fair elections. International communities should advise and assist in the election process to avert any violent eruptions during and after elections and to help avoid a repeat of Ivory Coast in The Republic of The Gambia.

Democracy at the Crossroads: The 2011 Elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)
Olu Taiwo, Africa Research Fellow, Africa Growth Initiative

The presidential election in the Democratic Republic of Congo takes place on November 28, 2011 in advance of the mandate for the current president, Mr. Joseph Kabila, expiring on December 6, 2011. Current events in the country cast doubts on both the possibility of holding the election on this schedule and the credibility of the outcome if held under the current circumstances.

There are enormous challenges to the democratic process. Pre-election violence has recently surged in the capital city and elsewhere, while renewed incidents of violence are reported in the troubled eastern part of the country. The U.S. Department of State designates the DRC as a Critical Crime and High Political Violence country. Preparation for the election is underfunded, as donors have been unable to provide adequate resources. International funding of the electoral budget has dropped from 80 percent in 2006 to 40 percent in 2011 and the DRC government is unable to make up the shortfall.

Recent changes to the electoral framework challenge the credibility of the outcome. A constitutional amendment was passed in January 2011 that eliminated the second round of voting during presidential elections. This implies that a minority of total votes may elect a president as long as the candidate receives more votes than other candidates. It also makes it possible that support from a few ethnic groups or provinces would be sufficient to win the presidency. This portends clear dangers to election credibility in a country that is home to as many as 250 ethnic groups. In addition, the highest electoral body, the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which is thought to be fairly balanced in terms of composition, has been replaced by a new Independent National Election Commission (INEC) that is constituted with a more partisan majority that leans toward the ruling party.

The DRC remains a fragile state. The forthcoming election presents an opportunity to consolidate the democratic process initiated in 2006 when multiparty elections were held for the first time in 40 years. The challenges constitute real dangers of missing this opportunity.