Introduction - Democracy and Electoral Processes in Africa

Dakar was the venue of the SI Africa Committee, 12-13 July 2004

Early in his essay entitled "Democracies", the constitutional expert and political economist Olivier Duhamel sums up in seven brief sentences several millennia of the construction of democratic authority. I quote: "Men have always lived in groups. Groups formed societies. Societies created a power structure. The power structure became the state. The existence and endurance of the state was dependent on consent. Consent became explicit. What had become explicit was subject to renewal." End of quote.

That consent on which the state depends in order to exist and endure can in fact become explicit and be renewed only if there exists an organised way for people to exercise power. However, since we realise that total, absolute and permanent democracy is impossible, even dangerous, we accept the need for the people’s exercise of power to be moulded by representative democracy and government. Thus consent is not sought constantly and on all questions - it becomes explicit only intermittently through the vote rendered periodically by the people in elections to choose their government and representatives.

The electoral process and its outcome therefore together appear as the supreme challenge for the governing authority and the means by which democracy is exercised and evaluated within a country. This is particularly the case in African countries where, in many cases, pre- and post-electoral disputes and conflict continue to punctuate the relationships between political forces and to undermine peace and national unity.

Our theme of "democracy and electoral processes in Africa" is thus not only topical but particularly relevant to a meeting of the member parties of the Socialist International Africa Committee. For us as socialists, the promotion of democracy and electoral transparency are not only a moral imperative but a determining factor in conflict prevention, stability, good governance and development. Seen in this light, the interconnection and complementary nature of the three themes of our meeting are very obvious.

But how are we, here before an Areopagus of eminent theoreticians and practitioners of the political arts, to tackle the question of democracy without falling into the familiar and commonplace? In order to avoid such a trap, let us spare you the need to recall the origins of democracy in Ancient Greece and the various forms it has taken down the ages.

We may then approach the subject in a more pragmatic fashion, enabling us to recall some guiding principles of democracy and the electoral process, to illustrate these by practical cases and to raise some questions to which our different experiences may bring mutually enriching responses.

Our theme is also a topical one because it is important and necessary to consider the stagnation, the reverses and the continued questioning of the process of democratisation which the coming together of a number of internal and external factors unleashed in Africa at the beginning of the 1990s. It must be acknowledged that the democratic process has met with mixed, if not disappointing, results. Whilst there has been considerable democratic progress in some countries, in others elections have served only as a practical way of legitimising through elections a power which has in fact been taken away from the people. Fifteen years after the beginning of the democratic transition, we can discern on the map of Africa:

1. Countries where the democratic process has been respected or which have made progress in the deepening of democracy;

2. Countries where there has been real democratic progress and even a peaceful transfer of political power, but where newly elected governments are undermining certain democratic advances;

3. Countries where democracy is a mere façade, where elections and a relative relaxation of authoritarian rule have been no more than a veneer for the benefit of the international community;

4. Countries where the democratic process has been curtailed by coups d’état.

5. Finally, countries where no democratic process is currently possible because of conflict or because the state is breaking down and in control of only part of its territory.

At the same time, the electoral process remains controversial, its results are contested and the legitimacy of those in office is weakened.

Minimum standards, both for democracy and for the electoral process, have therefore gradually been defined at international level. These international norms serve to complement and elaborate on more general texts such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. More recently, the African Union’s Declaration on Elections, Democracy and Governance reiterated the conditions for democracy and for free, fair and transparent elections.

We are far from committed to upholding one single universal model of democracy to be adopted by all countries. Such an approach would, in any case, be impossible and would lead to a result quite opposite from that sought, since - we must recognise and acknowledge this - democracy may take specific paths, specific forms, in the light of political, social and economic context, as well as of historical and cultural factors particular to each country. However, although there is no single model of democracy, there are universal principles to which African countries have themselves proclaimed their allegiance.

Political and legislative experience has defined a number of conditions by which a country may be judged to be or not to be democratic

1. The people must exercise control over government, either directly or through the channel of their elected representatives;

2. Elected representatives must be chosen at regular intervals in free, fair and transparent elections;

3. Elected representatives must be able to exercise their constitutional authority without being hampered by the opposition or powerful influence of unelected individuals or interest groups;

4. There must be universal, equal and secret suffrage;

5. Every adult citizen must have the right to stand as a candidate in elections;

6. Citizens must have the right to express their opinions without fear of reprisals by the state;

7. Citizens must have the right to different sources of information, such as the media, and such sources must enjoy legal protection;

8. Citizens must have the right to form groups and organisations, including political parties;

9. There must be functioning public institutions, separation of constitutional powers and freedom for other powerful forces to exist in society;

10. The government must not been subject to foreign influence which overrides popular sovereignty.

If one of these conditions is absent, many observers judge that a country is not really a democracy. Consequently, elections alone - even if they are free, fair and transparent - are not sufficient to define a country as democratic. As well as elections, there must be an institutional structure which organises and guarantees, among other things: the basic rights and freedoms of citizens, the separation of constitutional powers, the existence of other sources of power in society, and equality of all - including members of the government - before the law.

However, for us as socialists, freedom - which is part of democracy - does not mean freedom for economic or financial power to override or corrupt the choices available to citizens. The democratic ideal is not fulfilled if there is only government of the strongest, by the strongest and for the strongest. This holds good whether political power or the power of money is the strongest! Democracy is not only political, but also economic and social, and this implies the equitable redistribution of wealth produced and the promotion of social justice and equality of opportunity.

Let there be no misunderstanding, however. Although elections are not the only condition for democracy, they are absolutely necessary in order to legitimise the exercise of power. Free, fair and transparent elections thus stand as a strong marker of democracy, because the electoral process is a unique occasion for the exercise and full enjoyment of democracy’s other criteria.

The importance of a reliable and credible electoral process which allows the election of a government issuing truly from the people is thus very clear. There are of course different approaches to the organisation of elections and the conduct of the electoral process. But there are also inviolable signs which point the way to free, fair and transparent elections.

First of all, there are the laws governing the electoral process. In order to be transparent, the electoral process requires a well defined legal framework based on international conventions or, in the case of post-conflict elections, peace agreements, on a national constitution, and on electoral laws and regulations. Sometimes extra-institutional factors such as charters, pacts or codes of conduct or ethics - be they tacit or explicit - also have a role in regulating competition between political forces.

Just as important as its content is the manner in which the electoral law is drawn up or reformed. Experience has shown that the rules of the electoral game tend often to be modified by those in power in order to favour their own short-term interests. It is thus clearly essential that electoral laws are drawn up or reformed according to participative, consensual and democratic principles. Only then will the electoral process benefit from the broad institutional and popular legitimacy capable of ensuring its stability and longevity.

The legal apparatus behind the electoral process must therefore be coherent and comprehensive. Its content must be unambiguous, comprehensible and transparent. It must cover every facet and every stage of the electoral process. Its various stipulations must all be capable of application, as any anomaly may undermine the credibility of the elections.

However coherent and complete, an electoral law has no credibility unless it is applied. National and international NGOs which act as election observers and programmes of assistance to the electoral process do not examine only legal texts. Their methodology for validating an election includes verifying the application of the law from a number of viewpoints; those most commonly to be found in election observation manuals are the following:

1. The degree of impartiality shown by the body responsible for organising the electoral process;

2. The degree of freedom to organise, travel, meet and express their opinion enjoyed by the political parties and candidates;

3. Equality of access to public resources made available for the election;

4. Equality of access for political parties and candidates to the media, especially the publicly owned media;

5. Registration of voters without discrimination on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion or on any other basis;

6. Free operation of the voting process and transparent counting of votes.

This list underlines that the first criterion for the validity of an election is the degree of impartiality shown by the body responsible for organising the electoral process. This is because who has responsibility for organising elections is certainly the aspect of the electoral process where the most options are available and which therefore arouses considerable suspicion. In practice, countries can be assigned to four categories according to type of electoral body, degree of consolidation of institutions and degree of trust or mistrust in political forces. We may thus distinguish:

1. Countries where the administration of the electoral process is entirely the responsibility of the normal constitutional institutions (government and courts);

2. Countries which, even when their executive and legislative institutions are competent to manage the electoral process, still feel the need to put in place a body for the supervision, control or basic arbitration of elections. Such a body is responsible not for conducting the election, but for controlling the activities of the executive authority, with the legislative authority confined to its own field of competence;

3. Countries which place the organisation of elections in the hands of autonomous electoral bodies which nonetheless remain under the control of the legislative authority;

4. Least trusting of all are those countries where an electoral court or Independent national electoral commission, acting as a fourth arm of the state, is responsible both for organising the elections and for dealing with disputes about the results.

In Africa, the experiments in democratic transition of the early 1990s were for the most part carried out by autonomous or independent national electoral commissions. Experience has forced us to conclude that these are not a panacea, especially when they are subject to no control and pre-empt all constitutional powers.

Before I conclude, permit me some brief reflections on two problematic issues which are also linked to the other themes of this meeting.

Firstly, the particular cases of elections held in:

• conflict-prevention situations leading to transitional elections where peace negotiations between government and opposition determine the essential characteristics of the electoral process, and

• post-conflict situations where elections are organised as part of the reconciliation process after a civil war and where peace agreements and the involvement of the international community have a considerable influence on the electoral process.

In post-conflict elections there are often institutional arrangements whereby all parties to the war may be included in the democratic process, since the main source of legitimacy of these elections must be the search for solutions which will help build confidence and lead to a definitive peace.

Finally, the second issue relates to an electoral system which itself constitutes a bone of contention. Whilst no perfect electoral system has yet been created, it is accepted that the system chosen can impact on the inclusion or exclusion of social groups from the democratic process. Pursuit of partisan advantage is often the major factor behind a government’s choice of electoral system. This can be a destabilising factor in a country divided by ethnicity, nationality or religion.

Electoral systems serve not only to elect parliaments, they contribute greatly to the prevention and management of conflicts within countries with ethnic, religious or other minorities. In these countries, the electoral system must be one which favours alliances across different identity groups, obliging parties and candidates to seek support outside their usual ethnic or religious base. Experiments with inclusive electoral systems established in the light of particular socio-historic contexts have proved themselves in all parts of the world. A number of observers maintain that the system of proportional representation established in South Africa, as a mechanism for power-sharing, has been one of the determining factors in favour of national reconciliation.

Let us conclude by affirming our conviction that democracy is compatible with national cohesion in multi-ethnic African societies! A democratic process and fair and equitable elections are a tried and tested option for maintaining national cohesion. If democracy is to succeed, African elites in particular must face up to their responsibilities. I end my contribution with this challenge and thank you for your attention.

Serigne Mbaye Thiam,

Member of the Political Bureau, Socialist Party of Senegal