Political Elections in Africa and Fragility

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Nov 9th 2012

Africa has made very good progress in institution building and in promoting democratic practices on the political front. However, there is some way to go in some countries where reversals of democratic practices have been reversed such as recently, in Mali. Indeed, the Arab spring revolutions also pint to challenges of in the area of Voice and Accountability, which is potentially explosive when combined with youth unemployment. One question is, are political elections outcomes in Africa random? Is there a pattern in election outcomes? What factors determine the pattern of outcomes? In this short piece, I try to answer these questions, by analyzing data of all 653 elections in Africa from 1960 to 2010, of which 299 (46%) were legislative elections and 354 (54%) were presidential.

Table 1: Classification of African elections outcomes (frequency and percentage): 1960-2010












Incumbent loses, accepts defeat







Incumbent loses, contestation, coalition







Incumbent loses, contestation, standoff







Incumbent wins, contestation, coalition







Incumbent wins, contestation, standoff







Incumbent wins, no contestation














Source: Hausken and Ncube (2012)

Overall, during 1960-2010, 80% of the presidential and legislative elections results were accepted, 18% resulted in a coalition and 2% resulted in a standoff. Incumbent tend to win elections they organize with a 71% probability. When they incumbent loses, he tend to reject the results (79% of the time). The challenger tends not to contest the results (contestation occurs in only 7% of the cases). However, the challenger’s contestation rate is higher for presidential election (12%) than for legislative elections (2%).

The data shows that election standoffs are few. Some of the coalitions are formed after a certain period of standoff. And standoff may result from a broken coalition, or the coalition may be imposed by the international community while the political situation is a real standoff as in Zimbabwe.

Factors determining electoral outcomes

Every election tends to be a unique event in time. Electoral conditions even within the same country vary a lot from time to time. The final outcome of an election depends on several factors including the economic performance of the incumbent, the provision of public goods, institutional factors, social factors, the incumbent characteristics, the challenger’s characteristics, the electoral system, historical and geographical factors and initial conditions.

Social factors seem to have strong effect on electoral outcomes. Observing that the most frequent electoral outcome in Africa is the incumbent wins with no contestant of results and stays in power, this suggests that when voters get access to higher education, and obtain a better understanding of the political, social and economic situation of their country, they are more likely to contest the re-election of the incumbent if they deem it fraudulent. Ethnic fractionalization also significantly affects the electoral outcomes. This seems expected as conflicting ethnic interest is a strong additional motivation for the incumbent to fight for re-election.

In terms of political factors, an additional 5-year mandate in power, significantly decrease the probability of incumbent losing, and in fact increases the probability of the incumbent winning. This is in line with the fact that the appetite for power increases with the time spend in power, and generally reflects the advantage of incumbency. If the opposition is strong, the incumbent is less likely to cling to power or win without contestation as expected since the cost of electoral fraud and results rejection are high. Challenges have more freedom to campaign and contestation is more likely to occur. Changing the political system from multiparty to single party decreases the probability of an incumbent losing and the result is contested. Accepting defeat is not a big deal in a single party election since power remains under the party control no matter the election outcome. For the same reason there is no need to cling to power when losing.

If the incumbent is from the military, the probability of the incumbent losing and contestation increases by 0.12. This result can be explained by the fact military incumbent are more likely to come to power through political coup and govern by force causing voter discontent in the long run.

To legitimize their power and demonstrate their popularity to the international community, military incumbents often organize “democratic elections”. Voters are likely to express their discontent through the ballot and the incumbent is likely to lose. Because the incumbent did not expect to lose and want to hold power, he will not concede defeat.

Contestation of Election Results

Rigorous economic analysis was performed using binary analysis and the results show that the number of years spent in power can significantly turn the odds in favor of an incumbent winning and staying in power instead of conceding deaf to the challenger. For an additional year spent in power by the incumbent, there is a relative likelihood of 0.08 that an election results in challenger becoming the new incumbent. Economic performance and social factors do not seem to not matter much for this likelihood.

The analysis also compared the case of standoff and contestation against the incumbent losing and staying in power. Switching from multiparty elections to single party elections significantly turn the odds in favor of incumbent winning. If the incumbent is from the military, the probability that the incumbent loses and causes a standoff or results contested is nine times higher. Military incumbents are to a higher degree expected to lose and cling to power than they are to win without contestation. If a country has a moderate natural resource endowment instead of no or few natural resources then the odds are higher that the outcome is incumbent winning against the incumbent losing that results in contestation and standoff. Social factors do not matter.

In addition, the likelihood of contestation is significantly high when the opposition is strong and economic performance is poor. Voters seem more concerned about their economic situation during electoral period. Social factors such as tertiary education and ethnic and religious fractionalization also matter. Contestation is likely to occur when voters have more tertiary education. This is not surprising since country-wide contestations generally begin in universities. Contestation is also significantly high if ethnic and religious fractionalization increases.




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Mthuli Ncube

Professor Mthuli Ncube is the Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank, and holds a PhD in Mathematical Finance from Cambridge University, UK, on “Pricing Options under Stochastic Volatility”.

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