Political Elections and Democratic Fragility in Africa
Africa has long been considered politically unstable and fragile due to predominance of unconstitutional regimes such as through military coups. Since the early 1960s, Africa has experienced about 200 coups d’état. However, recent years have raised hopes for improved political transition and stability across the continent. Free and transparent political elections constitute an important and essential step towards successful leadership and democracy. Failure or absence of free political elections may impede social and economic development of a country or region as it may lead to social upheaval. Political stability is of primary importance in fostering economic and social development and in attracting foreign direct investment to the continent.
Elections and Democratic Fragility
Democratic elections that have been held in the past two years in countries such as Senegal, Tunisia, and Zambia, have demonstrated that African countries can succeed in organizing free and fair elections.
Nevertheless, recent events including the re-emergence of military coups in Guinea Bissau and Mali have once again highlighted the political fragility and risks in some African countries. These events turn back the continent’s efforts towards strengthening democracy. The erosion of well-established democratic standards in countries such as Mali is a major threat to the ongoing political, economic and social development on the African continent.
However, overall democracy in Africa is still fragile, mainly due to adverse social and economic conditions. Persistent and high levels of poverty and corruption in Africa compared with other regions of the world represent threats to the sustainability of democracy. In addition, due to domestic manipulation, political elections in Africa have not led to elections of representative governments in all countries.
The 2012 Mo Ibrahim index on African Governance, which measures good governance in Africa, shows that political participation including through political elections, has deteriorated by about 5% since 2007. Furthermore, in a recent note, the U.S. think-tank Freedom House observed that the number of full electoral democracies among the 49 Sub-Saharan countries has fallen from 24 in 2005 to 19 in 2012.
In analyzing political elections in Africa, Ncube (2012) uses data of all 653 political elections held in Africa between 1960 and 2010. Out of this, 299 (46%) were legislative elections and 354 (54%) were presidential. The findings suggest that for presidential elections, the results of the election were contested by the loser in 95 cases (14.5%) whether it was the incumbent or the challenger. A total of 7 elections from the 95 cases ended in a stalemate rather than a coalition. For legislative elections, results were contested in 37 cases, of which 3 resulted in a standoff.
Overall, during the 50-year period covered by the study (1960 and 2010), the results of 80% of elections for both presidential and legislative held were accepted while in 18% cases, the contestation culminated into a coalition. In only 2% of cases, the outcome of the election was a standoff. The tendency of the incumbent to reject the result of elections after losing is much greater than for the losing challenger. In 79% cases, the incumbents rejected the result when they lost while only 7% of the cases are contested by challenger after losing an election.
Factors determining electoral outcomes in Africa and contestation
A number of factors interact to influence the outcome of political elections in Africa. These include economic performance, education enrollment, ethnic and religious fractionalization, strength of the opposition, multi-party system as well as the country’s natural resource endowment. Social factors seem to dominate over other factors. For instance, better access to higher education, for example, may lead to stronger understanding of political, social and economic situation of the country thereby influencing voters’ choice. In some African countries however, ethnic issues play an important role in determining voters’ electoral choice.
According to a recent study, the probability that the incumbent wins the election and stays in power is found to be positively correlated with the number of years spent in power. For every additional year in power by the incumbent, the relative likelihood that the challenger wins the election is only 8%.
However, a strong opposition may lower the probability of the incumbent’s re-election or increase the likelihood of contestation or standoff after an election.
Furthermore, if the incumbent has a civilian or military past also influences the outcome of an election. If the incumbent has a military background, the chances of winning the election decrease while the probability of contestation by the opposition increases. The probability of contestation is directly related to a strong opposition and poor economic performance recorded under the leadership of the incumbent.
Lack of political plurality manifested in single party elections rather than multiparty systems significantly increases chances of the incumbent winning an election.