Democratic Elections in Africa - Opportunities and Risks
Free and transparent political elections, which permit citizens to effectively express their will and participate in the governance of their country, form an important part of sound democratic institutions.
Democratic governance in turn is critical in fostering economic growth and has been used as a barometer to assess ability of a country to effectively manage public resources and protect private property rights. Increasingly therefore, international investors use a country’s state of democratic governance in assessing the impact of political risk on their investment.
Democracy in Africa: mixed results
Over the past two decades, the African continent has improved its democratic governance with respect to holding of regular elections although there are variations across countries. The latest report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) shows that only Mauritius was ranked in the category of ‘Full Democracy’ regimes while ten African countries were classified as ‘Flawed Democracy’. The remaining countries were classified as either ‘Hybrid Regimes’ or ‘Authoritarian Regimes’, both of which are regarded as non-democratic. Although these classifications are based on opinions and may potentially ignore some achievements in a number of countries, they are nonetheless suggestive of the need to expand the democratic space on the continent.
Political elections in Africa: risks and opportunities
Political elections pose a major litmus test for a country’s democratic fabric. In 2011, a number of elections were conducted on the continent with mixed outcomes. Some African countries demonstrated an increasing level of democratic maturity by organizing relatively transparent and peaceful elections.
For instance, elections in Zambia and Tunisia in September and October 2011, respectively, were hailed as credible. As a result, Zambia was upgraded to the ‘flawed democracy’ category while Tunisia was among four African countries which moved to the ‘hybrid democracy’ category. Others were Egypt, Mauritania, and Niger.
In contrast, elections in Nigeria were marred by post-election violence which caused deaths of up to 1000 people in the northern region of the country. Similarly, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the election dispute in November 2011 nearly plunged the country into a crisis, threatening a return to civil war. The prolonged political impasse in Cote d’Ivoire in 2011 after disputed presidential elections of 2010 also provides an example of an election gone wrong. The impasse turned into an armed conflict resulting in deaths of hundreds of civilians and a sharp contraction in the country’s GDP by more than 7% in 2011.
Although the conduct of free and transparent elections is a necessary step towards democratization, it is not by itself sufficient to consolidate democratic governance. Other factors also play an important role in strengthening democracy and these must be fully embraced. Indeed, the empirical evidence is mixed on the relationship between elections and democracy. The irregularity of empirical findings may be explained in part by the fact that some elections have produced authoritarian regimes, mainly due to constitutional manipulations designed to perpetuate their hold on power. Thus, relying on elections to decipher democratic governance under such conditions may be a flawed approach. Genuine democratic regimes also pass the test on such aspects as the effective functioning of government, political participation, respect for human rights and cultural diversity.
Nonetheless, successful political elections can be an opportunity to rewrite a country’s new chapter. In 2012, more than 20 elections and referendums are scheduled to take place (see Table 1). By drawing on examples from Zambia and Tunisia, and recently in Senegal, these elections offer an opportunity for African countries to reassert themselves as budding democracies.
In particular, following the departure of dominant political elites in Egypt and Libya, the elections in these countries offer incentives to break with past legacies and chart a new political and economic dispensation. In Sierra Leone, the success of the third consecutive multiparty elections in 2012 since the end of civil war a decade ago will further cement the country’s democratic credentials and sustain the current momentum of foreign investment in extractive resources. In Zimbabwe, economic recovery remains fragile and conditional on improvements in political governance tied mainly to the conduct of open and fair elections. Avoiding a repeat of political violence that characterized the previous elections in 2008 will be especially crucial for the country’s re-engagement with the international community.
Although recent political events in Mali have once again blighted West Africa’s fragile democratic evolution, there is ample evidence to suggest that African countries can create strong democratic institutions and consolidate economic gains deriving from reduced political risk. This is critical if the continent is to address a myriad of development challenges that confront it. However, an election process must be accompanied by a broad spectrum of other democratic and governance reforms, including especially reforming the constitution to entrench a culture of tolerance for diverse views and protection of human rights.