Africa correspondents travelling to hotspots on the continent have a difficult choice to make in the coming weeks. Should they head to the Central African Republic (CAR), where a new president will be elected on 18 October amid lingering ethnic and religious strife and shambolic institutions after the recent war? Or maybe Burkina Faso, where another third-term bidder, Blaise Compaoré, was driven out, but where 11 October elections will take place amid military divisions and uncertainty over who can participate.
Some could travel to West African powerhouse Côte d’Ivoire, where President Alassane Ouattara will surely win on 25 October. It is an important election nonetheless, given that his predecessor, Laurent Gbagbo chose to burn the house down rather than relinquish power during the last poll in 2010.
Then again, the most likely country where large-scale contestation of results could take place is Guinea, where the opposition is already gearing up to declare the presidential vote on 11 October unfair and not free.
AU, EU and regional body observers must ensure planned elections in Africa go smoothly this October Tweet this
Still, why not opt for a good news story? Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete is stepping down, following general elections on 25 October, after two terms at the helm of a country that has known decades of political stability.
With this many elections in one month, observers from the African Union, the European Union and regional bodies will have their hands full to ensure everything goes smoothly.
International aid agencies and Western governments have, for decades, financially supported creating an informed electorate in many African countries. Donors have also spent a lot of time and energy encouraging candidates to respect democratic processes. At times it has worked. Only last week, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari thanked American President Barack Obama for helping to ensure the high-stakes presidential election in April, which he won, ran smoothly.
However, William Assanvo, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, warns that in many of the countries facing elections, much needs to be done to ensure a credible process. Key problems remain with the independence of electoral commissions, financing of the elections and electoral lists that need to be reviewed and updated with each poll. In some cases, like in Côte d’Ivoire, they need to be updated annually.
In Burkina Faso, around 900 000 people – nowhere near the 3,5 million that were targeted – came forward between 3 March and 18 May 2015 to register to vote in the October polls. This brings the current electoral list to a total of 5,5 million people, which is a 27% increase from the 2012 list. In Côte d’Ivoire, only 344 000 people’s names were added to the list. The government initially targeted two to three million new voters, many of them young first-timers.
Assanvo believes that part of the problem is that people do not see a real contest in Côte d’Ivoire. Four political parties forming the Rassemblement des Houphouétistes pour la Démocratie et la Paix (RHDP) are rallying behind Ouattara and have called on their supporters to vote for him. Among these are the Parti Démocratique de Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI), one of the oldest parties in the country.
Gbagbo, the only other real challenger, is behind bars in The Hague after being charged by the International Criminal Court. Also, only 2 000 registration centres were open for new registrations, while in 2010 there were 11 000. Other logistical problems, like obtaining new identity cards, have also hampered the process.
As Africa struggles with third-term bids, the lack of confidence in electoral systems is striking Tweet this
In Guinea, there is huge tension between President Alpha Condé and the opposition, who have accused the government of manipulating the electoral lists and registering minors in Upper Guinea (Haute Guinée), a region traditionally loyal to the ruling party. The main opposition party, the Union des Forces Démocratiques de Guinée (UFDG) of Cellou Dalein Diallo has also accused government of restricting the registration of Guineans outside the country. ‘Many of them are Fulani [considered the traditional electorate of the UFDG] and the party suspects the government deliberately obstructed the process, dealing a serious blow to the credibility of the lists,’ says Assanvo.
The independence and perceived credibility of electoral governing bodies are also vital to ensure voting runs smoothly. In Guinea, the current level of criticism of electoral institutions could derail the entire process. The opposition could urge its supporters to protest if they are unhappy with the results and violence will then break out, as was the case during the contested legislative polls in 2013. An added challenge in Guinea is the disagreement between the government and the opposition about the date of local elections, which has been postponed several times.
At the end of 2014, the International Crisis Group warned about the risks associated with the Guinea election. 'The country’s electoral history, the failure of dialogue between the government and the opposition and the indefinite postponement of local elections originally scheduled for early 2014 are all bad omens,’ says the ICG.
The electoral calendar is also one of the sticking points in the CAR, where critics argue that going to the polls on 18 October, with a second round planned for 22 November, is far too soon for a country that is still recovering from a devastating conflict. Still, some members of the international community, notably France, which led the military intervention to stop the war in 2014, believes the sooner an elected government is in place, the better. The United Nations Development Fund also urged the country to organise elections, despite the many logistical challenges.
Whether the countries facing elections in October will follow Senegal’s example remains to be seen Tweet this
In all this, Tanzania stands out as a country that has managed to avoid political violence since independence – besides the regular contestation and calls for secession on the island of Zanzibar. October’s polls are likely to be won by Minister of Works John Magufuli, of the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party, which has been in power since the 1970s. Yet analysts like John Mukum Mbaku, point out that the winning margin of the ruling party has steadily decreased over the last few years and the CCM could face stiff opposition from a united front of smaller parties. Contestation of the electoral process, though, pales in comparison to those in the other four countries.
Ironically, as the continent struggles with third-term bids, the lack of confidence in the electoral systems in these countries is striking. Apparently, no one is even considering the possibility of a free and fair vote in places like Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. Incumbency is just so overpowering, and the opposition is weakened by repression and lack of freedom of speech.
An important exception to the rule comes from Senegal. In February 2012, former president Abdoulaye Wade’s third-term bid was thwarted at the polls and elections were considered free and fair by all. Whether any of the countries facing elections this October will follow Senegal’s example, remains to be seen.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
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NTU-SBF Centre for African Studies