Elections: Curse or cure for democracy?

COMMON IN AFRICA—Election related violence

By Gray Kalindekafe:

Post-election political impasses and their devastating consequences in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi and other African states have compelled analysts and policy makers to ponder the complex question of whether elections in Africa are a curse on or a cure for democratic advancement.

Many keen observers of Africa’s political scene have pointed to these and other events, particularly the unconstitutional changes in governance, as a manifestation of the regression of the democratisation process on the continent, inferring that democracy is either at a standstill or is backsliding.


Although the Kenyan and Zimbabwean cases have given these debates fresh impetus, it is important not to overlook the fact that Kenya was still in the phase of ‘democratic transition’ and the violence was the result of certain structural deficiencies in the country’s socio-political structure, not merely of problems within the electoral cycle per se.

As such, while the electoral violence which has dominated Africa’s transition to democracy in the past two decades may be attributed to disputes over the rules governing elections during the electoral cycle, there are deeper systemic and structural causes, which are deeply embedded within the political economy of each African state.

The argument that follows is that the post-election power-sharing agreements reached in the two countries have set an unfortunate precedent and that such agreements are becoming a trend in Africa. In this regard, the issue of ‘context’ must be highlighted, since previous power-sharing agreements followed armed conflicts and not multiparty elections.


However, it should be noted that power-sharing agreements are short-term transitional arrangements and that a return to democratic normality should be initiated. In terms of the contexts in which electoral violence ensues, democratisation theorists have identified three main phases or sequences of the democratisation process.

It is said that the democratisation process involves three phases: liberalisation and ‘political opening’, transition, and consolidation. Although the phases are not specifically defined, they provide a useful analytical framework for judging the level of progress of the democratic process in a given country or region and its susceptibility to election-related violence.

Three main contributing factors to post-election violence have been identified as: socio-economic divisions, arising primarily from poor governance; regimes which have no stake in political change; and weak institutions and institutional rules governing the election process.

The nature, intensity and consequent outcomes of electoral violence in African countries have varied and within a country there may be different levels of violence at different times. This has certainly been the case in Malawi, where varying degrees of violence have flared up consistently in elections since 1999.

The 2007 and 2013 presidential election in Kenya, where a contested outcome led to violent protests and mass displacements of populations, is another example. Consequently, consensus has emerged that electoral violence in Malawi may emanate from deficiencies in the electoral process itself as much as it may be stimulated or catalysed by underlying social, political and economic cleavages or tensions.

Among the explanations for conflict are the stakes involved; expectations relating to victory or loss; and political interest in the incentives created by an electoral system. Observers have noted that electoral conflict and violence may occur at any one of the three stages of the electoral cycle – pre-election, voting and post-election. Experience has indicated that once the poll has been concluded, violence tends to erupt over allegations of fraud and corruption or when there is dissatisfaction with the result. Some challenges to the conduct of democratic and peaceful elections in Africa are identified as follows:

  • Protection of incumbency: Elections, by their very nature, are uncertain and competitive processes. Violence ensues in situations where there is a strong possibility of changing existing power relations and the incumbents are unwilling to cede power. This has been the case in Africa, as elections are often associated with tension and the eruption of social antagonism over the capture and control of the state.

Much can be attributed to the dominance of one party and an intolerant political culture relating to the opposition. In the context of authoritarian regimes, the strategic intent and practical consequences of violent acts are designed, in many ways, either to vitiate the elections altogether or to influence voting behaviour through threat or intimidation.

  • Absence of a tolerant political culture and the entrenchment of a dominant-party system: The conduct of democratic and peaceful elections requires a tolerant political culture, which seldom exists in former one-party state systems and/or dominant-party systems in Africa. In most illiberal democracies or hybrid regimes, political intolerance and repression are rife.
  • The design of the electoral system: The structure of an electoral system can either exacerbate or de-escalate electoral conflict as it has a direct impact on identity and ideology. The extent to which a system is regarded as fair and inclusive may determine the possibility of post-electoral conflict. Violence often occurs when elections are ‘zero-sum’ events and ‘losers’ are excluded from participation in governance.
  • The management and administration of elections: The roles of election management bodies (EMBs) are vital during the electoral cycle as, if the EMB is suspected of a lack of impartiality, the credibility of the electoral process is diminished and there are high levels of violence when the results are announced. Further, it is important for EMBs to have conflict prevention and management systems in place to enable them to handle any incidents of violence that may emerge at any stage in the electoral cycle.

It is important to establish a robust and solid electoral peace management architecture. The role of intergovernmental institutions, international organisations and partner countries in the prevention and management of electoral conflict is critical.

It is important to note that the capacity to settle internal electoral disputes in Malawi and many parts of Africa is frequently weak. Part of the problem lies in the design of the conflict-resolution structure. The traditional approach has been to be reactive rather than to emphasise proactive conflict prevention.

Interventions also tend to be state-centred, excluding civil society groups and those who are particularly vulnerable during violent periods – women, for instance. As countries have failed to address issues related to electoral conflict the role of external players such as the African Union (AU), Sothern African Development Community (Sadc) and the regional economic communities (Recs) has been questioned. African countries should prioritise the prevention of electoral violence and far more effort should be made prior to elections to avoid crises.

What is needed is an investment in early-warning mechanisms and interventions to redress problems as soon as they arise. However, it should be noted that national, continental and regional intergovernmental organisations have often failed to detect electoral conflicts and have not intervened early enough to nip a pending crisis in the bud.

Although instruments like the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) are in place they seem to have already been reduced to mere paper tigers, given the lack of urgency. Malawi and other African countries are bound to be entangled in the quagmire of an illiberal democracy, which is a political system where democratic elections exist and the government is elected by a democratic majority, but is not restrained from encroaching on the liberty of individuals and denying their political rights.

The term is also used to denote a particularly authoritarian kind of representative democracy (also referred to as semi and quasi democracies), in which the leaders and lawmakers are elected by the people, but tend to be corrupt and often divert from respecting the law. Thus, this kind of democracy facilitates democratic procedures but fails to provide essential civil liberties.

Furthermore, few African states have incorporated regional and continental provisions in their legal frameworks. The resolution adopted by the 10th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the African Union in February 2008 underlined, inter alia, the need to initiate a collective reflection on the challenges linked to the tension and disputes that often characterise electoral processes in Africa, including the strengthening of the African capacity at national, regional and continental levels to observe and monitor elections.

This is an affirmation that, although the continental body has a fully-fledged peace and security architecture (including the Peace and Security Council, the proposed African Standby Force, the Panel of the Wise and the Continental Early Warning System) and the Recs also have conflict resolution mechanisms and structures, there have been major challenges to their ability to operate and contribute to democratic advancement and the consolidation of peace and security.

The necessity for continental, regional and sub-regional responses to conflict prevention and management cannot be over-emphasised. However, it has become apparent that successful intervention is contingent on the commitment of African states to redefining their relationship with continental, regional and sub-regional bodies.

This would require countries to pool their sovereignty and give much more power to supranational organisations to allow for effective regional interventions without necessarily compromising the national interests of each state. As states recognise the supranational attributes of inter-governmental organisations and their usefulness in terms of the security and development of sovereign countries the mandates of intergovernmental organisations will, in turn, be strengthened.

It will fall to the AU, Sadc and the Recs to impress upon their member states the necessity to espouse the principles of democracy, good governance and the transparent management of electoral processes, including the protection and promotion of human rights, in order to prevent, manage and resolve conflict.

In addition to such intergovernmental organisations, the role of the international community during the electoral cycle is critical. Broadly speaking, international participants have been lauded as effective when they have engaged in critical election-related administrative tasks such as voter registration and training the security forces (as in Nigeria). Donors have also increasingly created guidelines for development aid to include governance and conflict prevention.

Still, the challenge is to include these ideas more consistently and effectively in domestic instruments to address the causes, manifestations and consequences of election violence. There are key lessons to be drawn from past election crises in Malawi and the continent as a whole which may provide some insight into ways of instituting a new ethos of electoral management.

Among these are: • Election-related violence is a particular type of political violence which occurs within the context of the overall process of democracy and democratisation. Although it may occur within countries that are putatively ‘consolidated’ it can also happen in less consolidated democratic systems.

  • Electoral violence may be a sub-type of political violence in which actors employ coercion as a strategic instrument to advance their interests or achieve specific political goals.
  • Electoral dispute settlement mechanisms are not properly institutionalised in most countries. Failure to resolve promptly problems raised in petitions relating to electoral processes may serve as a catalyst for conflict.
  • The tendency for last minute or ex post facto attention to conflict prevention is un-strategic and insufficient for managing the complex dynamics and causes of electoral conflict. Tools for preventing violence must be woven into each stage of the electoral cycle.
  • Lack of public confidence in the electoral machinery and government institutions as a whole sow the seeds of mistrust and discontent.
  • Although regulatory legal arrangements exist at national and continental levels they are not always enforced and there is often an interval between the acceptance and signature of an instrument and the point at which the stipulated ratifications are affected.
  • Technical assistance with electoral processes has been effective in providing compliance standards and capacity building for EMBs, political parties and nongovernmental and media organisations. This should be encouraged.


There is no doubt that Africa has made some advances in electoral democracy since the reintroduction of multiparty politics in the 1990s. Evidence suggests that the transition to electoral democracy was easier than the process of building and sustaining democracy.

This is partly so because elections are only one aspect of a larger process of democratisation and democracy building. Although elections provide opportunities for improved governance and conflict management, they continue to pose challenges to African political systems. Continental initiatives such as the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), as well as other African Union processes and instruments (including the ACDEG), acknowledge the loopholes in Africa’s electoral architecture and have evolved frameworks through which they can be addressed.

At the same time, however, since electoral processes are fundamentally about the attainment of political power, often in high-stakes contexts, they can be a catalyst for conflict. It is within these contexts that social tensions are elevated, often provoking violence.

This is particularly true when the electoral process itself is not perceived to be free and fair, or when those seeking to retain or gain political power have no reservations about resorting to the use of violence. However, since not all elections lead to political violence and conflict it is crucial that interventions are tailored for countries where violence may occur.

In managing future instances of political and electoral violence the AU, Sadc the Recs and international partners should craft measures that prioritise countries that are prone to problematic elections. There are two key points to be noted. The first is that electoral violence may erupt at any point during the electoral cycle.

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