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Democracy emerges in sub-Saharan Africa

Electoral officials sit at a polling station during Mali's presidential election in Timbuktu, Mali, July 28, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney
Electoral officials sit at a polling station during Mali's presidential election in Timbuktu, Mali, July 28, 2013. REUTERS/Joe Penney

By Andrew Novak and Kevin Lees

The recent re-election of Zimbabwe's 89-year old president Robert Mugabe, in office for 33 years, resembled a period not long ago when sham elections were the norm in sub-Saharan Africa. Peaceful transitions of power were almost unheard of.

Though the African Union disappointingly endorsed the elections as "honest and credible," Zimbabwe's electoral commission has now faced a spate of resignations and international condemnation over allegations of vote-rigging, intimidation and state media control.

But Zimbabwe's election is not representative of a continent that has made real progress toward democracy. Allegations of electoral tampering can seem almost anachronistic in an era of social media and instantaneous information-sharing. Technology has improved the caliber of elections all over the world — including Africa.

Between mid-July and September 30, seven countries in the region — with an aggregate population of 80 million — are due to cast ballots. Not all these elections, though, will be free and fair. Some, like Zimbabwe's, won't represent the popular will. But an increasing number will be a sign of progress for a continent with a history of failed democratic traditions.

Recent African elections demonstrate progress in three ways. First, long-delayed or boycotted elections are finally taking place, removing military regimes or one-party states from power.

Second, for the first time, several countries will have enjoyed two or three free and fair elections in a row. This is significant because running two well-managed elections improves the odds that there will be a third, and then a fourth — turning an isolated electoral experiment into a true democratic tradition.

Third, elections once marred by violence have been carried out peacefully, improving the credibility of political leaders and encouraging coalition-building and a non-zero sum attitude toward governing.

Holding long-delayed or previously boycotted elections is a major way in which many Sub-Saharan African countries have moved to civilian rule and multiparty politics — especially when the timing of the election is governed by the constitution.

Mali's election officials last week concluded a largely successful two-round vote, won by the civilian former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubakar Keïta. In the wake of French liberation of northern Mali from radical Islamists and a cease-fire with northern Tuareg rebels, Mali had its largest voter turnout to date.

While the election wasn't without flaws, it marked a return to the democratic path that Mali had pursued for two decades, before the March 2012 military coup, which interrupted a planned vote to succeed the term-limited Amadou Toumani Touré. Considering Mali's bleak prospects only a few months ago, the elections are a victory for democracy and security.

Meanwhile, long-delayed parliamentary elections are now being held in Togo, Cameroon and Guinea — in the latter, elections have been postponed since 2007. In all three countries, the president wields enormous power and the ruling party is still likely to triumph.

More important, however, is that in each case the vote follows a lengthy negotiation between the ruling party and opposition forces — an encouraging sign likely to strengthen the concept of multiparty democracy and rule of law.

Even in the sui generis case of Rwanda, mid-September parliamentary elections are a key test for President Paul Kagame, who has pledged to step down when his term ends in 2017, making this vote an important step toward developing a stable and open political marketplace.

The second major piece of evidence that Africa is moving toward a more democratic future is that an increasing number of countries have held second free and fair elections — consolidating gains already made. Plenty of countries in sub-Saharan Africa have held a transitional election, hailed as a "return to democracy" after years of military rule, socialist economic planning or white minority rule. But single elections, even if free, do not make a democracy. They may only be expensive, one-off exercises in election management.

Having a second free election, however, is a more notable achievement — especially when a second transition of power takes place. The two-election rule is key because it greatly increases the odds that a third free and fair election will be held. And then a fourth.

Ghanaian Vice President John Dramini Mahama peacefully succeeded President John Atta Mills, who died suddenly last summer. Mahama's decisive re-election in December 2012 was a reminder — the fourth since 2000 — that Ghanaian democracy is mature enough to endure a contentious presidential race, in which only a few percentage points separated the candidates.

Similarly, Macky Sall's defeat of President Abdoulaye Wade in Senegal in March 2012 marked the nation's second peaceful, democratic transfer of power. Wade famously trounced longtime president Abdou Diouf in 2000 by a wide margin in the country's first peaceful transfer of power. Like Senegal, Malawi and Zambia have also managed to express their democratic gains through several peaceful transfers of power.

Third, the apparent decline of election violence in Africa is another sign that African democracy has made progress in only a few years. Though more than 1,000 people died in election violence across Kenya in 2008, the March 2013 elections, where Vice President Uhuru Kenyatta won a narrow victory, were largely free of ethnic violence.

Madagascar, like Zimbabwe and Kenya, is emerging from a transitional government brokered in the wake of a political crisis. With a new constitution and an election roadmap in place, there are hopes it can hold a presidential election soon. The scheduled August vote will likely be pushed back to October, because the electoral court earlier this week disqualified the candidacies of President Andry Rajoelina, former First Lady Lalao Ravalomanana (standing in for her husband, former president Marc Ravalomanana) and another former president, Didier Ratsiraka. Nonetheless, Madagascar's vote could provide the opportunity to solidify its democratic gains.

Even in Zimbabwe, things might not be as grim as they seem. Though the elections weren't fair, they largely avoided the political violence of the 2008 vote, when 200 people were killed and thousands were injured. Despite Mugabe's reelection, the country's military elite and senior leaders of the ruling ZANU-PF hope to engineer a clear plan of succession, perhaps to Vice President Joice Mujuru or to Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, neither of whom will have the founding-father status that Mugabe enjoys. His successor will have to work to modernize Zimbabwe's economy and respond to the concerns of its citizenry to retain power.

It would be a mistake to view the developing African democracy with the same kind of rapture than some international investors have developed in recent years for Africa's "cheetah" economies. But in the wake of international discouragement over Zimbabwe's vote, it would also be a mistake to conclude that African democracy is in retreat, when there are so many signs that it continues to grow stronger.

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