Coups attract attention and action, but the manipulation of polls is the real threat to electoral democracy.
Can the political opposition win elections even when the incumbent government is determined to remain in power at all costs? This is a challenge for Africa where many leaders or political parties seem to have staked claims to power in perpetuity.
Elections have proliferated in Africa as they have across the world. Three decades ago, there were very few on the continent. Today almost every country in Africa holds them. Yet in Africa, as globally, democracy appears to be retreating. Freedom House assesses only 37 of Africa’s 54 nations to be electoral democracies, and of those, only eight receive its highest accolade of being ‘free’ both in civil liberties and political rights.
The anomaly of increasing elections and regressive democracy is explained by the depressing fact that ‘authoritarian leaders have learnt how to manipulate elections to stay in power,’ said Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, at a webinar held by The Resistance Bureau this week.
These leaders are ‘using regular polls as a device to merely legitimate their illiberal and often highly oppressive regimes,’ he said. The event on ‘How to (Not) Rig an Election: Protecting democracy through the ballot box’, gathered opposition politicians and activists from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Angola, Uganda and Zambia.
The discussion focused on how to defend electoral democracy and aired some difficult questions, such as: is it worth contesting elections when defeat-by-rigging is certain? And how do you react when yet another poll has been stolen from you, as Angolan activist Âurea Mouzinho asked about last month’s elections in her country. Mouzinho is global policy advocacy and campaigns coordinator at the Global Alliance for Tax Justice.
Many African leaders or political parties seem to have staked claims to power in perpetuity
The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), in power since independence in 1975, was officially declared the winner. This despite losing 10% percent of the vote since 2017 and scraping home with just over 51% against the almost 44% of the opposition coalition led by the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
UNITA’s parallel voter tabulation showed it had beaten the MPLA, Mouzinho said. Yet its court challenge was summarily dismissed without an independent examination. UNITA took up its seats in Parliament to the dissatisfaction of many Angolans who expected to be called for mass protests, especially in Luanda where UNITA won by a landslide. But that would probably have provoked a bloodbath, said Mouzinho. ‘And a country that has suffered so much war shouldn’t lose one more life.’
So what now? Some believe the MPLA might respond to its near defeat by tackling corruption, poor governance and poverty. Mouzinho suspected not and that it would lose even more heavily in 2027, at which point it might abandon even the pretence of democracy. The only hope for the opposition is to increase its parallel voter tabulation to make it even harder for the MPLA to claim victory.
Martin Fayulu – widely believed to have won the DRC’s 2018 elections, which were given to Félix Tshisekedi – similarly told the webinar how the opposition feared protesting would have provoked a bloody government reaction. He described how the Congolese people were betrayed by the African Union (AU) and other regional African organisations that he tried to persuade to push for new elections 18 months later.
Fayulu, still the opposition leader, suggested only Africa – particularly democratic countries like South Africa – and the wider international community could ensure the polls next year were impartial. A weighty burden rested on the United States, he said, as it had pledged US$235 million towards the elections, thereby putting its reputation on the line.
Early mobilisation of Zambia’s vast youth vote overwhelmed Lungu’s capacity to rig the result
David Lewis Rubongoya, Secretary-General of Uganda’s main pro-democracy opposition movement the National Unity Platform (NUP), bluntly told the webinar audience that ‘there are no elections in Uganda; it’s just a façade.’
Other leaders might tamper with the results, but President Yoweri Museveni simply stole them wholesale, he said. He noted how often the NUP’s presidential candidate Bobi Wine had been arrested and how many of its supporters had been persecuted or disappeared during the January 2021 campaign.
Where other opposition groups might conduct parallel voter tabulations, Museveni’s forces assaulted and arrested anyone found with an election results form. ‘It’s very hard to imagine you can beat Museveni in an election. So we participate just to rally people,’ he said. Like Fayulu, he believed the international community’s intervention was Uganda’s only hope.
Zambia seemed the one bright star in this gloomy firmament. In August last year, Hakainde Hichilema and his United Party for National Development (UPND) pulled off the rare feat – at their sixth attempt – of defeating the incumbent, Edgar Lungu, and his Patriotic Front.
However Zambian commentator and activist Laura Miti cautioned that circumstances differed from the DRC, Uganda and Angola. Zambia’s ‘stars had aligned,’ she said. The main difference was that Lungu had been an ‘incompetent dictator who never learnt the ropes.’ Yes, oppositionists were sometimes jailed but emerged ‘with bones intact.’ Furthermore, Zambians had ‘muscle memory’ of removing incumbent governments; they had done it before and believed they could do it again.
Opposition parties have to keep knocking their heads against the gates of power until the gates crack
Miti highlighted the importance of an active civil society, which she said was critical to winning the elections. Zambia’s civil society realised in 2016 that youth would be critical to success in 2021, and mobilised young people in vast numbers. This had overwhelmed Lungu’s capacity to rig the result.
She however noted that between elections, Zambians were bad at holding the government to account. So civil society was pushing for amendments to the constitution and the repeal of oppressive laws such as the Public Order Act.
The overall sense of this debate was that oppositionists simply had to keep knocking their heads against the gates of power until the gates cracked, hopefully before their heads did. Even more worrying, though, it suggested real electoral democracy was only possible when incumbent governments allowed it.
So perhaps another reason that authoritarian leaders hold elections is to hoodwink their people with the illusion of democracy – thereby blunting their risk of removal by force.
Fayulu and Rubongoya rebuked the international community for not doing enough to ensure elections were free and fair. That’s also true in many other countries, notably Zimbabwe, where the ruling party continues to cheat or beat the opposition into submission with impunity.
The AU is using sanctions more robustly and consistently to deter coups and unconstitutional changes of government, says Andrews Atta-Asamoah, Africa Peace and Security Governance head for the Institute for Security Studies. What is needed now is for the AU to define election rigging also as an unconstitutional manoeuvre to cling to power, making it punishable. This would also require AU election monitoring to be more robust, consistent and scientific than it has been.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria