Magazine article New African

Unrepentant Autocrats and the Sacrament of the Franchise

Magazine article New African

Unrepentant Autocrats and the Sacrament of the Franchise

Article excerpt

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Gone is the age of primitive election rigging, the early multiparty era when Africa's Cold Warriors secured re-election by sheer brute force. The new men in State House are adept at gaming the system, cleverly manipulating election commissions, courts and even violence. So, whither democracy? By Wachira Maina.

Following elections in Gabon in September, protesters attempted to storm the offices of the Electoral Commission in Libreville, the capital city, destroyed property, fought the police and eventually burnt down the parliament building, angry that the commission had declared President Ali Bongo--scion of the family that has ruled the country for half a century--victor over his opposition competitor Jean Ping, formerly of the African Union. They were protesting electoral fraud and suspiciously high voter turnout figures, especially the 99.9 per cent turnout reported in Haut Ogooue, Bongo's home province. Though voting is compulsory in Gabon, that rule is not enforced; and even in countries where it is--such as Australia--turnout never reaches these heights. The opposition suspected that the numbers had been souped up though Bongo might argue that such turnouts are not unusual; his late father, Omar Bongo, had a 100 per cent voter turnout in the 1986 election.

Gabon is not an outlier. In the presidential elections in Uganda in February this year, President Yoweri Museveni got 100 per cent of the votes cast in 47 of a sample of 60 polling stations that reported 100 per cent voter turn-out. In the 2013 presidential election in Kenya, comparable turnout figures were reported from polling stations in the strongholds of the leading presidential candidates, suggesting all round rigging. According to a statistical tool for detecting electoral fraud developed by Peter Klimek, Yuri Yegorov, Rudolf Hanel and Stefan Turner, such figures for a victorious candidate in unusually high voter turnout elections signal systematic fraud.

Welcome to Africa's new wave of democracy: elections are as routinely held as their results are routinely challenged. In many places--Kenya, Uganda, Gabon, Ethiopia, Chad and even previously peaceful Zambia--they are either preceded or followed by violence. Court petitions challenging the victory of the president-elect have been dismissed on formal rather than substantive grounds in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and Zambia.

Electoral Commissions are formally independent under the constitution. Their powers are often laid out in detailed statutes. In practice, however, they have proved ineffectual, exerting few of the powers that the Taws assert and generally favouring incumbents. Ballot stuffing in the crude traditional manner no longer happens but systemic irregularities across all aspects of the electoral process now guarantee that the integrity of the election as a whole is compromised.

In a back-handed way, these shenanigans are a compliment to the moral force of democracy. Even unrepentant autocrats want the sacrament of the franchise. They know that blatant theft of the vote will not fly in these censorious times, so they have crafted new ways of conducting "soft coups". Each irregularity is parcelled out in moderation: violence must be low intensity, not so intimidating as to stop voting altogether. And though technology could fail, it must not fail so catastrophically as to undermine the election. In short, failures must be such that international observers can plausibly conclude that the "elections substantially reflect the will of the people" and for judiciaries to judge that "the irregularities are not substantial enough to affect the result."

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This partly explains the evolution of electoral violence: it is usually low-intensity and localised rather than intense and widespread. Most intimidation is targeted, principally at candidates and pockets of voters, as is common in Uganda. Security forces are often deployed, not always to clobber voters but to create a climate of fear, as in the registration exercise and voting day deployment in Zanzibar in the 2015 election. …

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