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Elections not a panacea for African countries in crisis
28 March 2014

As the Central African Republic (CAR) slides deeper into crisis, some actors are now advocating for elections to be held in the war-torn country as soon as February 2015. International role players like France are saying this is the only way to create viable institutions that could put the country back onto the road to recovery.

The same urgency drove the elections in Mali in July 2013 – a mere six months after the French military intervention against Islamic militants in the north of the country.

Yet, hasty post-conflict elections could end up hiding deep political and socio-economic flaws. These are sometimes glossed over in the rush to put in place a government with a veneer of legitimacy. And when the elections are over, no real effort is made to review the systems or re-establish true democratic institutions.

Speaking at a conference organised by the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA) in Johannesburg this week, Ivan Crouzel, Deputy Director of the Institute for Research and Debate on Governance (IRG) in Paris warned that elections could easily go wrong without proper civic education and independent election management bodies.

Hasty post-conflict elections could hide deep political and socio-economic flaws

The IRG recently conducted a study in 10 African countries and found that much needs to be done to improve the quality and legitimacy of elections. In post-conflict situations, elections are sometimes seen as a way to solve issues of power and power-sharing. ‘Elections must be a part of a political settlement, but not the condition for it to work,’ says Crouzel.

Speaking at the same conference, Robert Gerenge, Senior Programme Officer for the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) also warned that in a post-conflict situation, observers tend to judge the success of elections only by the absence of violence. ‘People just ask whether the poll has been peaceful. We’ve placed the bar very low,’ he says. In many ‘first generation elections’ following political conflict, flaws in the system are whitewashed due to this ‘peace mantra,’ he says.

Gerenge mentioned the 2013 elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya as examples, which were both, paradoxically, marked by ‘optimism and fear.’ In Kenya, the elections on 4 March 2013 took place under a new constitution that was meant to mitigate the problems that marked the violent 2007 elections. Gerenge, who was an observer at the Kenyan polls, explains that despite this there were still many problems linked to ethnicity, along with incidents of hate speech.

The 31 July 2013 elections in Zimbabwe also proceeded peacefully, but the new constitution that was adopted in May 2013 had come too late to have a real impact on the voting. Rumours did abound about the rigging of the electoral list, but electoral observers didn’t stress this in their reports because it couldn’t be verified. ‘Generally, the quality of the voters’ role can serve as a pointer to the legitimacy of the vote,’ Gerenge added.

Elections are a 'stress test' for countries, but not a magic solution

ISS Senior Researcher David Zounmenou, who has written about the mishandling of elections in post-conflict situations, says that elections should not be treated as a solution to much deeper structural problems. Asked about elections in the CAR, Zounmenou believes the third quarter of 2015 would be a much more realistic date. A lot still needs to be done to stabilise the country after the coup d’état by the Séléka rebels in March 2013.

The United Nations (UN) peacekeepers – who will replace the current French and African Union troops (International Support Mission to the Central African Republic, or MISCA) – will only be deployed in the CAR in three months’ time, which means the full disarmament and demobilisation of combatants is still a long way off. Following this, there would have to be a proper census and refugees would have to be allowed to return to their homes. ‘Organising elections without even a semblance of stability will be premature,’ Zounmenou says.

Zounmenou also warned that it was too early when French authorities insisted that presidential elections should take place in Mali in July 2013. At the time, many people were still displaced and institutions in Bamako weren’t ready to organise such an important poll. Elections were a way to resolve the immediate problem of putting a legitimate authority in place in Bamako. This was important in the eyes of the population and of the Touaregs – the nomadic tribes who initially advocated for a separate state in northern Mali. Discussions with these groups could only be done by an elected government, yet Zounmenou says the medium- and longer-term issues have been left by the wayside. ‘What Mali really needs is a complete overhaul of its institutions and to re-establish democracy,’ he says.

In the last few weeks, election fever has gripped a number of African countries. People in Malawi, Algeria and South Africa will be headed to the polls in the next two months. Researchers agree that the success and fairness of elections depend a lot on the legitimacy and independence of the electoral management bodies. This is true for stable countries as well as for post-conflict situations.

Crouzel says one of the major problems is the politicisation of electoral bodies. In some countries, these institutions are prone to being manipulated by the incumbent regimes, especially when the head of state appoints the head of the electoral body. In countries such as South Africa, however, the non-alignment of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) is guaranteed by the constitution. ‘In some countries, elections are simply a way to gain international legitimacy,’ he says.

However, the accusations levelled against incumbents are sometimes closely linked to a lack of capacity and efficiency of the electoral institutions. Adele Jinadu, a professor of political science at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, suggested at the SAIIA conference that ‘underdevelopment can cause unintentional consequences.’ When elections go wrong, he explains, ‘this is not necessarily because the incumbent wants to sabotage the elections.’

When polls are badly organised, the electoral list is contested and voters wait for days to hear the results, this seriously undermines the image of the electoral management body. In South Africa, despite recent allegations of corruption levelled against the head of the IEC, Pansy Tlakula, the IEC has a very good reputation. This is to a large extent due to its efficiency; the IEC has the capacity to distribute voting material, organise smooth polls and announce the results speedily.

Experts agree that elections are a ‘stress test’ for countries, but not a magic solution to solve the problems of countries in crisis. In addition, elections have to be well organised and free and fair to really make them legitimate.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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