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Africa: Democracy is not just about the vote

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Picture: Leon Lestrade / Independent Newspapers / Taken on February 3, 2024 – A man walks past an IEC banner in Cape Town. Last weekend, the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) rolled out its last national voter registration campaign in a bid to get eligible South Africans on the voters’ roll for this year’s national elections. Strong independent institutions ensure that an election is held in a conducive environment that encompasses events before, during and after an election – these are crucial ingredients to a successful election, the writer says.

By Gwinyai Regis Taruvinga

Elections on the African Continent have often been received with great hope and anticipation by citizens at large. In 2024, several African countries will be conducting elections to elect new presidents and members of parliament. Comoros, Senegal, South Africa, and Namibia are just some of the countries that will have their plebiscites this year.

The state of democracy in any country is often measured through the types of elections that are held. More importantly, democracy involves the events that take place before, during, and after an electoral cycle. Elections alone do not measure democracy, but various other factors include freedom of speech, freedom of movement, the ability of opposition leaders to campaign freely, and access to media for all parties participating in an election.

When Zimbabwe held its general election in August 2023, although President Emmerson Mnangagwa was duly elected as the leader of Zimbabwe, several irregularities were cited by both the SADC observers and the main opposition. Among these, the opposition then led by Nelson Chamisa accused the ruling ZANU PF of using state machinery to subvert the will of the citizens. Examples included frustrating the opposition strongholds and arresting key figures such as Job Sikhala. The opposition in Zimbabwe bemoaned the shrinking democratic space, which gave President Mnangagwa an unfair advantage.

The same accusations levelled in Zimbabwe were also evident in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) election held in December 2023. The incumbent, President Félix Tshisekedi, won the election with a landslide of 72 per cent. His large margin of victory raised eyebrows as no winning candidate had previously scored over 48 per cent. Further, the country’s electoral commission did not provide a breakdown of the results that resulted in President Tshisekedi, further contributing to what has been viewed as a tainted victory by many observers.

The Zimbabwean and DRC elections point to a lack of belief in institutions within these countries. This lack of belief in institutions has often seen opposition parties crying foul even before the votes have been cast. Institutions, ideally, are meant to be independent, and several African countries’ opposition parties have often argued that institutions are captured and serve the interests of the incumbent leaders, as seen in Zimbabwe and the DRC.

Senegal provides another case that shows what transpires when institutions fail to serve their purpose. The sitting president of Senegal, President Macky Sall, made an announcement postponing the country’s election which had been scheduled for 25 February 2024. In his announcement to the population, President Sall cited that there was a dispute over a candidate list, and this prompted his decision to delay the election. It is believed by many observing the election in Senegal that one of the reasons for President Sall’s decision stems from the fact that if the election went ahead as planned, his preferred candidate would not have a favourable outcome. As a result, the Senegalese population took to the streets in disapproval of the president’s decision.

One of the key areas of contention with President Sall’s decision is that not only has he not set a new date, but he has used his powers as president of Senegal to undermine democratic processes in the country. This solidifies the importance of having strong independent institutions. President Sall had previously attempted to run for a third term but was stifled by protests which, to a larger extent, points to the importance of holding leaders accountable.

South Africa also faces a major election in a year that marks 30 years after the demise of apartheid. South Africa, by the Continent’s standards, is viewed as the paragon of democracy on the Continent. The country has a progressive Constitution and, more importantly, has held elections that have been widely accepted by the opposition parties and the electorate. The 2024 election is most likely going to be an extremely challenging one for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and its leader President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Under President Ramaphosa’s tenure, South Africa has experienced load shedding that has affected small businesses, and unemployment, especially among the youth, has skyrocketed. In addition to this, there have been several cases of corruption that have been reported against public servants which makes this an extremely important election as many factors are at play. Former President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, has also thrown his hat into the ring by backing an opposition party, joining former members like Ace Magashule in opposing the leadership of the ANC.

In addition to this, opposition parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have made great strides over the last five years and attracting the youth who are disgruntled because of ANC policies. This has posed a serious threat to the ANC’s hold on the leadership of South Africa as many analysts believe that the ruling party and oldest revolutionary party on the Continent will fall below the 50 per cent threshold.

In such a scenario where the ANC drops below the said threshold, they are likely going to have to form a coalition, which would be a first for democratic South Africa. As the Continent gears up for watershed elections, the role of regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) becomes very important in upholding democratic principles.

SADC played a crucial role in Zimbabwe’s elections, and Ecowas has played similar roles in West Africa. Internally, countries should ensure that institutions such as the judiciary remain independent and ensure that the will of the citizenry is not subverted. Strong independent institutions ensure that an election is held in a conducive environment that encompasses events before, during and after an election – these are crucial ingredients to a successful election.

Gwinyai Regis Taruvinga is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Wits Global Change Institute