Elections: A Democratic Necessity and Aid

November 20, 2014 OPINION/NEWS




Anant Mishra

According to Robert Dahl, noted political theorist, legitimate elections are one of the seven pillars of a functioning democracy. In order to be deemed a democratic country, a state must satisfy the requirement of having free, fair, and frequent election.

Dahl adds that control being vested in elected officials, nearly all adults having the right to vote, nearly all adults having the right to run for office, freedom of expression, freedom of information, and freedom of association are also democratic qualifications. Of course, the aspect we will be focusing on is the fairness of elections.  A truly open polity will have elections that permit nearly all citizens to vote and run for office, allow for multiple parties to run unhindered, are devoid of censorship and voter coercion, occur at frequent and regular intervals, produce accurate results that reflect the will of the people, and are manifested in a peaceful transfer of power to the rightful victor.

When these pre-requisites are satisfied, elections contribute to the progress of democracy. Successful elections create vertical accountability, forcing officials to listen to the will of the people in order to maintain their jobs, and therefore facilitate good governance and limit corruption. If leaders fail in their duties, they can be expelled via the ballot box, and the people’s frustrations are channelled through legitimate means rather than violent insurrections and coups d’état. In this way, elections aid in promoting stability and the 2011 Global Peace Index results reflect this correlation. The most peaceful countries in Africa are Botswana, Malawi, and Ghana, all of which have consolidated democracies and a track record of successful elections.

Indeed, transparent elections have additionally had the effect of aiding the healing of political scars left by years of violent conflict and solidifying the burgeoning democracies in each country, as can be seen in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and South Africa.



The success in Liberia in 2005 brought an end to 15 years of strife and civil war. After Charles Taylor, leader of the 1989 coup that sparked the civil war, was forced to step down from the presidency in 2003, the country began to work towards rebuilding its democracy. Through the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Liberians set up a power-sharing government, which united the former oppositional and rebel factions under the National Transitional Government of Liberia and designated national presidential and legislative elections to occur by 2005. These elections, organized by the independent and much trusted National Election Commission (NEC), and under the auspices of a UN peacekeeping mission, resulted in the election of Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sir leaf after a contested run-off, which was deemed fair by the NEC. Because of the impartial nature of the adjudication, the elections were viewed as legitimate by the people, and marked a watershed for Liberian democracy.


Sierra Leone

In neighboring Sierra Leone, following years of bloody conflict, the 2007 elections witnessed a peaceful transition of power from the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) to the All People’s Congress without renewed hostilities. The people criticized SLPP for corruption and the party’s failure to meet the basic needs of urban populations, such as jobs and electricity, voting based on actual policy rather than just tribal affiliations. So though partisan politics and the impetuses that led to war in the first place still existed (corruption, poverty, resource distribution, ethnic tensions), elections provided a non-violent forum to channel the differences and frustrations that had previously torn the nations apart, while giving the people an opportunity to hold their leaders accountable and seek a power change without resorting to war.


South Africa 

Perhaps the best known democratic success in the continent is South Africa as it has undergone a miraculous transformation from its apartheid era past to its present standing as a leading economic and political force in Africa and the world. After a history of blatant racism tracing back to its colonial roots and the institution of the apartheid regime in the late 1940s, the people of South Africa had decades of ethnic tension, hatred, and repression to contend with. However, the 1994 elections, which were the first allowing all South Africans to vote regardless of, race, successfully brought Nelson Mandela to power under the African National Congress. These elections, although preceded by violence and doubts about South Africa’s democratic future, ushered in the nation’s first black president and led to one of the most progressive democratic constitutions in the world, without marginalizing the white population by excluding the former government party from the race. Although there are still racial tensions in South Africa and controversy over continued inequalities and affirmative action, a series of successful, peaceful elections, a power-sharing government, and a commitment to democracy have helped to heal some of the racial and ethnic problems that have plagued the country for so long.


Democratic Failings and Problems with Elections


Ethnic Divisions

Elections can often be more of a catalyst for violence than a solution, and there are a number of flaws and roadblocks that can cause attempted elections to fail. One issue is the ethnically divided nature of Africa. The seemingly arbitrary colonial division of Africa has created an irrational patchwork of ethnic and tribal groups forced together by artificial boundaries. The melange of tribal identities crowded into nation states, a political structure imported from Europe and formerly unbeknown to the continent, has created countries that have to deal with an ethnically diverse, and often antagonistic populous. These nations must now find a way to appease the many groups equitably and find a fair method of representation in order for elections to succeed. Failure to do so can result in horrendous bloodshed, civil war, and destruction.



Indeed, colonial pasts and favouritisms have left many groups pitted against one another, creating tension and violence. This is one of the many reasons for the enmity between Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda. In their imperial obsession with racial designations, the Belgian colonial rulers gave power and preference to the Tutsi minority in jobs, schools, and government, engendering hatred within the Hutu majority. The myth of one tribe’s superiority and their mutual racial distinction spilled over to unspeakable violence, when in 1994 Hutu leaders manipulated these beliefs and resentments into mass genocide, killing 800,000 Tutsis in 6 weeks. When Tutsi strongman Paul Kagame took power, and was later pressured into the first elections since the genocide in 2003, he mandated that any candidate running on ethnic diversionist platforms would be disqualified. Although an admirable goal, he used this to outlaw most Hutu opposition parties, essentially eliminating any competition and maintaining his own and the Tutsi RPF’s power. Not surprisingly, Kagame won the very undemocratic elections with 95% of the vote.



Over 250 ethnic groups inhabit Nigeria’s borders and make for a very difficult and complex political situation. Fittingly, Britain’s drawing of the country maps in 1914 is commonly known as “the mistake of 1914.” Britain’s blunders did not stop there, however. After seeing the disparity in education between the North and South (the Southern Christians benefited from the prevalence of missionary-run schools), the British attempted to even the playing field by northernizing the civil service. In this way, Northern Muslim tribes were handed the reins over all political power, and therefore over the expansive oil wealth. When the country transitioned to a fledgling democracy in 1999, elections actually exacerbated the already-present ethnic tensions. Politicians appealed to constituents with demagogic, ethnic-based platforms, trying to win the votes of with ethnic clientalism. This caused the fragmentation of the three original states into the 36, mostly ethnically distinct, states that exist today.  Not only was the scale of violence increased over contested results between different groups vying for power and wealth, but feuds arose over the drawing of electoral maps. The Southern Ijaw tribe began to deploy terrorist tactics against their Itsekiri neighbours in order to pressure the government to gerrymander in their favour, seeking more representation in government, and therefore more control over the corruption mechanism with access to oil and foreign aid wealth. The Nigerian government has since implemented a rule that Presidential candidates can only win if they receive 25% of the vote in 2/3s of the states to try to avoid ethnic dogmatism in the executive office. However, divisions between the North and South still remain at the forefront of politics, demonstrated most clearly by the fact that the North has instituted sharia law while the south has not. Political and ethnic tension reared its head again in the 2011 elections of President Goodluck Jonathon. The Southern Christian candidate’s overwhelming victory over his Muslim opponent, even in the Northern states, has prompted many to cry foul. It appears that, just as in 2007, the election may have been tainted in favour of one party. The continued discord between religious groups, regions, and tribes has caused some critics to fear that Nigeria may not survive as a unified country.


Quest for Legitimacy

Although elections are ubiquitous throughout Africa, they do not necessarily signal democracy. In many cases, elections are merely used as a way to legitimize authoritarian regimes or illegal transfers of power, acting as charades rather than real mechanisms to provide representation to the people. Authoritarian regimes will often seek any method possible to maintain power, flouting any electoral rules in favour of victory. Authoritarian leaders ruling under the guise of democratic elections may use a number of techniques to assure their continued control over the government. While some may choose to disregard term limits all together, as was done in Namibia, Niger, and various other countries, others may depend on elections, no matter how faulty and corrupt, to mask the oppression in their countries by providing a facade of democracy to appease the international community. In these cases, leaders have various techniques for holding on to the reins of power. For one, electoral processes may be biased from the outset, limiting which parties can participate, as seen in the Mubarak regime’s exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood from political life in Egypt before the revolution in 2011. Other governments may vie to disqualify opposition candidates on arbitrary and sometimes absurd grounds, guaranteeing that they or their party run uncontested.

For instance, in Zimbabwe over 400 MDC candidates were blocked from the race at once for all failing to meet registration requirements. In Cote d’Ivoire in 2000, the pro-regime Supreme Court prevented 14 out of 19 candidates from running, including the current president and then leader of the Rally of Republican party, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, who was disqualified because his Ivorian citizenship was put into doubt. Of course, authoritarian incumbents also have the added benefit of control over the media, the security forces, the voting stations, and the judicial system. They can abuse these powers to sway the election as subtly as slandering their opponents on television and radio, as indiscreetly as using police to brutalize opposition supporters and intimidate voters, or as surreptitiously as stuffing the ballot boxes or falsifying results.



Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe has utilized all these methods to hold onto the Presidency since 1987. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, Mugabe mobilized the newspapers to praise his party, ZANU-PF, and uncover purportedly sinister plots of opposition force MDC, rigged ballot boxes, registered deceased pro-ZANU voters, and led a massive campaign of terror, hiring war veterans to beat MDC supporters and sympathizers and destroy their businesses and homes. Despite the thugs posted outside every voting station, MDC won the majority of the vote.

However, because of extensive gerrymandering, ZANU was still awarded 62 seats as opposed to MDC’s 57. In 2002, Mugabe won the presidential election, though his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai was polled as holding the support of 70% of the population. Again, in 2008, the joint parliamentary and presidential elections were marked by extreme violence. The lengthy delay in presidential results led to mounting concern on the part of many African nations and regional bodies and ushered in rising tensions within the country.

When the results finally came out, a run-off was necessary because Tsvangirai held plurality but not majority. The population began to contest the accuracy and transparency of the Zimbabwean Election Commission (ZEC), sparking massive violence and state-led killings, arrests, and torture. Tsvangirai attempted to withdraw from the run-off in an attempt to stem the violence, but the ZEC rejected his offer, and the run-off between Mugabe and Tsvangirai was concluded in Mugabe’s 90% landslide victory. The Pan African Parliament, South African Development Community, UN, and AU all condemned the elections and violence as not conforming to democratic, transparent, and peaceful standards. To resolve the continued political violence and uncertainty, the AU held a summit in Egypt that resulted in a power-sharing government between the MDC and ZANU, making Mugabe president and Tsvangirai prime minister. Though some were hopeful for the prospects of the coalition, Human Rights Watch and various other organizations continue to criticize the government for sidelining MDC while retaining control in the hands of ZANU-PF and continuing the persecution of MDC supporters.

In other cases, elections can be put into effect to smooth over an illegal transfer of power. Coups are a serious threat to democratic society, representing three out of every four lapses in democracy worldwide, and have been a prevalent and often violent, destabilizing force in Africa since the creation of nation-states in that region. Indeed, between 1961 and 2004 there were 80 successful coups and 181 failed attempts, leaving very few countries in sub-Saharan Africa free of their influence and challenge to democracy. In many countries, socio-economic distress, corruption, and poor governance combine to create an environment of frustration and instability that is easily manipulated, creating the means to overthrow the current government. Meanwhile, the tempting control over foreign aid and access to abundant natural resources provide the incentive for many coup leaders. However, once they have seized power, coup leaders often choose to hold elections in order to give an air of legitimacy to their regime and because of pressure from the West, which is influential on aid-dependent countries.



This can be seen in the 2009 elections in Mauritania following the coup that deposed elected President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. The bloodless coup led by General Abdel Aziz prompted condemnation from the UN, suspension of aid from the US, EU and World Bank, and sanctions from the AU. The election that followed the coup pitted General Aziz against three challengers, resulting in Aziz’s victory and ascension to the Presidency amid calls of electoral malpractice. Despite the controversy, Aziz maintained his power, and his success was replicated by coup leaders in Guinea and Niger within the year.


Other Concerns and Considerations

In order to achieve successful elections, a number of factors are essential and many issues must be resolved. For one, a semblance of stability is vital to holding successful elections. If elections are rushed and held before the cessation of violence, people’s ballots may be swayed by fear and coercion. Any form of oppression that prevents the populace from voting freely will delegitimize the election as undemocratic, and for this reason, countries should attempt to quell any armed struggles before attempting to institute a new government. Similarly, in post-conflict nations, the scheduling of elections can be a primary determinant of success. If elections proceed too immediately after the end of the conflict, warring factions will simply manifest themselves as warring political parties, holding the same grievances and grudges that sparked war in the first place. So although nations may be anxious to put the past behind them and start over, acting prematurely could spell the failure of their fledgling democracy.

Some see power sharing as a solution to the problems faced by ethnic diversity and election violence. Though this is an apparently fitting and positive idea, it has proven to be unsuccessful in many nations for a number of reasons. Parties and ethnic groups in power favour a winner-takes-all election system for the simple reason that the winner can lay claim to 100% of the spoils. This strategy led UNITA to favour elections in 1992 Angola rather than a power sharing solution, as they knew they were backed by the majority. Unfortunately, this decision led the country directly back into civil war. Similarly, as groups will seek the most advantageous option for themselves, they may utilize inter-ethnic cooperation only if they are the weaker group standing to benefit (while the stronger will reject it), wish to team up in order to overcome another tribe, and ignore deals if strategic necessity shifts. Also, because parties are not homogeneous, a deal signed by one individual of faction could easily lead to fragmentation and continued fighting. Perhaps, most importantly, the natures of the ethnic conflicts and political authoritarianism, which often bring about power-sharing solutions, preclude much hope for seamless cooperation. Often, the demagogues waging war have engendered intense fear and hatred within their followers that cannot be erased by merely signing a treaty. Similarly, authoritarian dictators may give up power in name, but not in action, as can be seen in Zimbabwe’s coalition government where Mugabe often sidelines the oppositional MDC and his own prime minister. So, in many ways, though power-sharing is an appealing idea and has reached some success in South Africa and Liberia, it is incredibly difficult to implement and may prove disastrous unless instituted with extreme care under the right circumstances.


Cote D’Ivoire

One additional danger to elections is the incumbent’s refusal to recognize them. Strongmen in governments will often ignore accurate results if they are in opposition to their continued grip on the reign of power, as can be seen in the events in Cote D’Ivoire in 2011. Laurent Gbagbo assumed the presidency in 2000 after elections following the coup led by Robert Guei that ousted Henri Konan Bedie. After years of rebellion and turmoil, a power-sharing agreement was signed in 2007, but violence continued and elections were delayed. When elections and run-offs were finally held in 2010, Alassane Ouattara won the majority of the vote, but the Constitutional Council instead declared Gbagbo the victor. The UN, EU, US, ECOWAS, and AU refused to accept Gbagbo’s victory and endorsed Ouattara. Gbagbo’s negation of Ouattara’s internationally recognized electoral success thrust the country into a civil war. After pro-Ouattarra forces overran most of the country, Gbagbo was arrested, but not until his subversion of electoral procedure provoked violence that displaced nearly one million people from their homes.

Indeed, election violence is not only blight to democracy, but to the people as well, as it has the potential to make a nation of refugees. Politically and ethnically motivated violence has been seen to create huge populations of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and forces refugees to escape to neighbouring countries. After the 2007 election violence in Kenya, over 1,000 people were killed and nearly 600,000 people fled their homes, many seeking shelter in neighbouring Uganda. Even four years later in 2011, the UNHCR has found that over 1,600 Kenyans were still living in one of Uganda’s largest refugee camps, afraid to return home. Therefore, there are not just theoretical, political repercussions for failed elections and violence, but a very real human toll. Another issue to be watchful for is biased electoral structures. The formatting of elections must provide for multi-party participation without unequal barriers to entry or favouritism. Regimes that marginalize various candidates, stymie opposition parties’ involvement, or give the appearance that particular factions or ethnic groups are being disadvantaged in the process will not only produce elections that are viewed as illegitimate, but may also foster ethnic tension and violence. For this reason, firm, recognized, and respected constitutions, election rules, and election commissions are crucial to maintain equal opportunity and fair, transparent participation in elections. This especially applies to fairness in the registration process. Many countries’ registrations are abused to favour one party, as in Zimbabwe where dead citizens are maintained on the registry if they had a record of voting for ZANU. Similarly, there have been a multitude of cases of cross-country influence, as in The Gambia where the government smuggled Guineans and Senegalese citizens into the country to vote in favour of the regime. For any election to be truly fair, the organization of it must be made as neutral as possible from the start.

Additionally, the government or institution arbitrating the elections must hold the confidence of the people. If those counting the votes are not trusted or respected, the results will not be either. If that is the case, calls of election fraud could easily destabilize the country. However, if the results are monitored and scrutinized by a neutral party that does not have an obvious stake in a single outcome, the election is less likely to be contested.

In many of these circumstances, international and regional actors can facilitate a smooth transition. In many African countries ranging from Angola to Zimbabwe, UN and AU peacekeeping missions have maintained a presence before, during, and after the electoral processes to help maintain peace and security or quell post-election violence. Similarly, various good governance organizations have come to young democracies’ aid by helping to plan the formatting of elections, supervising voter registration, monitoring voting stations, ensuring accuracy of vote counting and reporting, and providing neutral arbitration of disputes. With increased foreign support, questions surrounding the potentially detrimental effect international monetary aid can have on economies and democracies may into play and concerns revolving around national sovereignty may arise. However, non-state forces can provide a useful service in ensuring security, safeguarding the freedom and efficacy of the electoral process, and preventing further conflict.

However, if outside aid is to be implemented, the countries and groups in question must envision elections as a long-term process rather than a singular event. In this vein, priority must be shifted to establishing secure and flourishing civil society institutions on the national and local level. If elections in African nations are to succeed into perpetuity, the nations themselves must be self-reliant. The governments of these countries must have the capacity and infrastructure to conduct voter education and registration as well as oversee impartial and efficient elections. Therefore, the goal of outside institutions or NGOs working towards good governance should consider not only the election at hand, but also the training of local authorities to ensure that they can carry out successful elections in the future.

Of course, countries must also take responsibility for themselves as well. Indefinite reliance on foreign aid often hurts nations more than it helps, enabling the perpetuation of corruption, limiting motivation for reform, and causing damaging inflation and trade deficits (Moyo 2009). Similarly, continuous international election monitoring and the Nanning interference of neighbours will mould nations that are not politically independent and self-sufficient. Therefore, to create lasting improvement in elections, the impetus must come from the people and the leaders within each country. No meaningful change can occur in countries where there is a government and/or a civil society that does not believe in or does not want democracy.

The people must favour and support any budding democratic government for it to succeed, and the government must implement reforms for democracy to grow in the first place. It is all too true that some country leaders represented in the AU see no need for democracy, and there are even some that staunchly oppose it. In these cases, unless those leaders lose power, it is unlikely that any true reforms will come to fruition; no matter how extensively international organizations reprimand or cajole them. However, in nations where the will of the people matches that of the government, reform from the inside is altogether possible. Sometimes it simply takes strong politicians dedicated to the democratic process to start the democracy rolling, as in Mali. After years of dictatorship, Mali had a string of good leaders who helped foster the republic. President Alpha Oumar Konare, the first president who came to power in totally free and fair elections, set the precedent in adhering to term limits and constitutionality, exiting without violence after his second term in 2002. Notable for his decentralization of the government, fostering of democratization and Chairmanship of the Commission of the African Union, Konare is an example of how a willing leader, coupled with pro-democracy civil society, can transform a government and a country from the inside out. Partly due to his legacy and those of his successors, Mali now has a Free Freedom House rating and some of the fairest elections in Africa, despite its dismal economic situation.


Regional Efforts and Solutions    

The fundamental right to elections in enshrined in Article 21 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, stating that the will of the people “shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures” (Article 21 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948).

Likewise, the same principles are spelled out in the founding articles of the AU, the AU Commission’s Strategic Plan for 2009-2012, and the Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, promoting democracy, free elections, and an end to corruption, the condemnation of illegal transfers of power, and the cessation of conflict on the continent. To further these principles, a number of measures have been put in place to establish fair elections and good governance, paving the way for a democratic future.

For this reason, regional and international bodies have stepped up to provide support, assistance, and supervision to bolster democracy. NGOs like IFES run programs such as BRIDGE (Building Resources in Democracy, Governance, and Elections) and EVER (Election Violence Education and Resolution) to help train and build upon countries’ civil service and election leaders, as well as to alert them as to how to prevent election violence. Similarly, many all-African organizations are stepping up to intercede within their own continent rather than simply leaving the job of election reform to the global North and West. For instance, the Association of African Election Authorities is committed to professionalizing elections and creating regional networks and support for good governance, recently teaming up with IFES to observe elections in Nigeria. In the same way, regional bodies like ECOWAS, the South African Development Community (SADC), and especially the AU have dedicated a number of organizations to aiding democracy. The main AU body heading election issues is the Democracy and Electoral Assistance Unit, with the various responsibilities of heading AU election observation, providing training, and propagating AU instruments relating to democracy, and answering requests for democratic assistance. Other AU institutions relating to elections are the New Partnership for Africa’s Development African Peer Review Mechanism, African Statesmen Initiative, and the Panel of Eminent African Personalities, all of which help review and advice countries on how to improve their electoral processes.



Despite all the difficulties and frustrations accompanying elections and the pursuit of democracy in Africa, there is also hope. In recent years, there have been multiple signs of improvement. In the 60s and 70s, not one African leader was peacefully removed from office, but the 1990s saw 12 leaders deposed by elections, and that pace is only quickening; economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa has increased from -.7% in the 1990s to a much-improved of 2% overall in the 2000s; average adult literacy in Africa has jumped from nearly 0% a century ago to over 60% today; countries like South Africa, Ghana, Mali, and Botswana continue to shine as beacons of consolidated democratic success; nations, NGOs, and regional and international organizations continue to strive towards free, fair, and frequent elections, the eradication of poverty, and a continent of peace and stability. These facts and figures begin to paint a picture of a more hopeful Africa, an Africa that bears the potential to step out of the turmoil and poverty of its past to claim the benefits and wealth of a peaceful and progressive society, laying fertile ground for flourishing democracy.






Anant Mishra

Anant Mishra is a former youth representative for United Nations. Almost 4 years of experience, he has served in number of committees including United Nations Conference for Trade and Development and United Nations General Assembly primarily focusing on international trade, education, finance, economics. food crisis And disputes. He is available on [email protected]


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