Elections, Electoral Systems, and Conflict in Africa

By Reynolds, Andrew | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Elections, Electoral Systems, and Conflict in Africa


Reynolds, Andrew, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


The history of democratization in Sub-Saharan Africa has demonstrated that competitive elections are always important historical moments-they have ushered in change, rebirth and renewal. Yet while elections are the bedrock events of any democracy, they are also the political institution most open to manipulation. The electoral moment is fraught with fragility. As often as elections in Africa have been positive events, they have also precipitated moments of crisis, which exacerbate ethnic conflict, political breakdown, and related social disequilibrium. To understand whether elections are likely to bring progress or instability, one must consider whether the political sphere is ready for competitive elections and how the elections themselves are designed and operated. The electoral system, or how the votes cast are actually translated into seats, has a huge impact not just on inclusion and exclusion but also on the tone of the entire political system. The system will also craft the space for corruption and vote rigging-it will not eliminate the space for malfeasance, but it can limit it. For these reasons, the crafting of appropriate electoral systems is one of the key factors shaping democratization and political conflict on the continent.

It has become de rigueur to dispute the emphasis that international aid missions and scholars place on elections as the holy grail of democratic transitions in post conflict states. In War, Guns, and Votes, Paul Collier argues that when elections are superficial-corrupt, flawed, and "ethnic"-political violence is heightened and the resulting governance is worse than it would have been if elections did not determine the government at all. Despots are seemingly "legitimized" through stolen elections and substantive participation never penetrates beyond the existing elites.1

In this line of reasoning, blaming elections for causing political conflict is similar to suggesting that in order to avoid getting wet from a leaky roof, one should live outside to stop getting rained on. In reality, the metaphorical roof must simple be constructed in a way that fits the house. Fortunately Collier's broader argument is more sophisticated than stating that all elections in poor places are bad. His analysis is that elections tend to work better in societies that have larger populations and fewer ethnic divisions. They also tend to work better in polities with checks and balances on the power of government, and in particular where the elections are properly conducted. In a sense, he argues a modern version of John Stuart Mill's belief that free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. And while Collier has the kernels of a point, he fails to build in the crucial variable of institutional design, which my research demonstrates does contribute greatly to whether elections promote conflict or accommodation.

Clearly, one successful election does not prove the establishment of democracy, nor should foreign assistance and attention atrophy soon after the first votes are counted. The Sudanese scholar Francis Deng says it well: "Democracy is a concept that advocates popular participation in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the country through ongoing, sustained comprehensive reforms and measures, not just at the election polls."2 But while accepting that elections without democracy impoverish and often retard progress, elections themselves remain a focal point for elites and lay the foundation for what comes after, whether good or bad. Elections are the first stage of public involvement in the process of ratifying or crafting the governance element of a peace process. This is partly symbolic, but it is also substantive and the only way popular control can be born, as the state must ask for consent from the people for its rule. The American declaration of independence notes that "legitimate governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," but it is also practical in the sense that elections select the leaders who will then share the spoils. …

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