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African Elections: Democracy or Dictatorship?
By David Zarembka, Coordinator

Elections in the United States can be annoying. Those incessant ads on TV where one decent person abuses another decent person; the simplification of complex issues into slogans; the spin, half-truths, and lies for political advantage; and the pundits contradicting each other; all this leads one to wish that the election day would come quickly. In this region of Africa – Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Ethiopia – elections are much more than an annoyance. Election periods are fearsome times. Intimidation, violence, government suppression of normal freedoms, and even armed conflict that leads to the destruction of the country are the results of elections.

The practice in this region is that the ruling party never loses an election. The only exception was the 2002 defeat of the KANU government in Kenya. At that time I thought that this would be a major watershed for democracy in Africa – the overthrow of a repressive regime by the ballot box. How wrong I was! This was no more than the exception that proved the rule. If the constitution of a country has term limits for president, rather than stepping down, the president changes the constitution. In 2006 President Museveni did this in Uganda. If the president actually loses, as probably happened in the 2007 Kenyan election, the president just declares that he won and is immediately sworn in again. But in most cases the president wins with 90% or more of the vote. When this happens, we should be suspicious.

The International Community – through organizations such as the European Union, the African Union, the Commonwealth, the Carter Center, and others – sends in election observers for all elections. These observers show up a few days before the election, see that everyone lines up nicely to vote, and that the results seem to be tabulated in an organized fashion, and then may declare that the election met acceptable international standards. One problem is that these standards are extremely low. As long as people enrolled for the election had a ballot, put them in boxes in an orderly fashion, and the results were announced, the election is considered “fair”. The President and his party then continue their rule when the election was no more than a façade to hoodwink the international community into thinking that the government is legitimate. If in rare cases, the international observers declare that the election did not meet international standards, then nothing happens as the president is sworn in again, usually at a ceremony attended by the neighboring presidents who have earned their positions by the same dubious methods.

How does the ruling party always win, even if it is unpopular? There are so many ways for the ruling party to cheat that it is difficult to even list them all. Here are some very common ones:

• The ruling party uses government resources in the campaigns, thereby creating an unequal playing field for opposition candidates.

• Opposition candidates are harassed, sometimes jailed on spurious charges, their election campaigns are disrupted, and sometimes they are even assassinated.

• Popular opposition political parties are not allowed to register or, if registered, are banned.

• Client political parties of the ruling party are registered to confuse the electorate and international community into thinking that there is real opposition.

• In Kenya the most common method is to bribe voters – one of the corruption scandals was blamed on the need for the ruling party to have enough funds to win the election.

• In other countries rumors serve the same purpose. For example in Burundi, people were told that the ruling party officials were watching how they voted and if they didn’t vote for the ruling party, they would not be allowed to use government services such as hospitals and schools.

• Intimidation of voters is a common practice and is not done during Election Day while the observers are watching. Rather it is done before the election when youth groups sponsored by the ruling party visit people at night in their houses and tell them to vote for the ruling party.

• Large groups of youth groups organized by the ruling party parade around the community to show force. I have seen these groups in Kenya and know how intimidating they can be.

• The electoral commission is not a neutral body but is appointed by the government; so clearly they are going to support the ruling party who has appointed them. If the voting doesn’t go the way it should, then the electoral commission “cooks the books” for the ruling party – there are innumerable methods of doing this.

• Ghost voters are common. These may be people who have died or children or foreigners. In the case of Uganda there were entire poling stations that were fictitious.

These are some of the methods that the ruling party uses to “win” an election. But do not think that the opposition political parties are innocent. They use these same techniques when they can. The contest then becomes a question of who has “stolen” the most votes. In one case in Kenya a candidate for Member of Parliament “won” by over 10,000 votes. When the courts recounted the ballots, this candidate lost by over 10,000 votes thus nullifying the election.

The African voter is well aware of all this. They realize that they are just bit players in a game of charades. As a result they have no confidence in the legitimacy of the government, even if the international community’s election observers have anointed it with their imprimatur.

The real, basic problem, though, is that citizens now have no method of creating regime change –except resort to violence. Every one of the governments mentioned above – Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Ethiopia – except Kenya, seized power through armed violence as a rebel group or, in the case of Sudan, a military coup. I have no understanding of how a rebel group which has created destruction in their home country, killed its citizens, and committed atrocities can then become the legitimate government of a country. Governments should be run by educated, skilled, competent people. Rebel soldiers and commanders are totally unqualified. If there is mismanagement in these governments, there is no need to wonder why. If a rebel leader is willing to kill his countrymen and destroy the society and economy, when he and his party control the whole country, they will just do the same thing, but on a grander scale. This becomes a great road to riches. Elections are but a means of confirming this dictatorship. All these governments that seized power through the sword have never lost it through an election.

As the government becomes more dictatorial, more entrenched, better able to control the outcome of elections, corruption and suppression of decent people intensifies. Citizens, particularly the youth, can revolt. This is what happened in the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. This, too, is not a constructive solution because certain ethnic groups are targeted, property destroyed, and people killed. When the masses revolt, it is not pretty.

This is not democracy. Democracy means that people have a chance to choose their government through a fair playing field for all who wish to contest. Democracy means that those same citizens can change their government when they so chose. In this region of Africa such is not the case.

What can be done? For starters, the international community has to tighten up its standards on what is considered a fair election. It cannot just observe on the voting day. Observing must include the campaign period. Has the opposition been harassed, jailed, and even assassinated? Have government resources been used to the advantage of the ruling party? Have youth groups been used to intimidate voters? Were some political parties banned from the election? Was the tallying of the votes transparent in that the results from every polling station in the country are available for inspection? Is the electoral commission an independent body or appointed by the ruling party? Did bribery occur?

If these questions cannot be properly answered, the election must not be considered “up to international standards”. When this occurs, some consequences to those governments who have manipulated and stolen elections must take place. They should be considered illegitimate and not allowed proper standing in the international community, but considered a pariah state, loosing, for example, their status and vote at the United Nations and other international organizations. Foreign aid should be curtailed; and so on.

Real reform will only occur when there is an international, independent electoral commission that will be part of the election process – not just as observers – but as part of the whole election cycle itself. Such electoral commissions should be filled with people trained and skilled in the election process; even in poor, difficult countries such Burundi or Sudan.

Modern communication technology should be used. For example, in the last referendum on the new constitution in Kenya, votes were counted at the polling station and results sent by a secured cell phones to the tallying center. The results began coming in only a few minutes after the polls closed and by 10:00 p.m. on the evening of the voting the outcome of the election was clear.