African Elections: Delivering Democracy

A hallmark of a democratic election is that it is conducted through a predictable process while the outcome is not. Do recent elections in Africa meet this mundane test?

Ozias Tungwarara's picture

Regional manager with the Africa Regional Office

April 8th, 2015

African citizens are asking whether elections are delivering democratic outcomes – are citizens exercising popular control over public decision-making and are they treated as equals. 

In other words, are elections in Africa giving expression to the popular will? 

A hallmark of a democratic election is that it is conducted through a predictable process while the outcome is not. Do recent elections in Africa meet this mundane test?

Growing universality?

Elections have become the predominant mode for contesting political and state power in Africa. This contrasts starkly with a few decades ago when state and political power could be assumed through a number of ways that included revolutions, rebellions, coup d’états, and constitutional manipulation. In 2014 alone some ten African countries will have held presidential and/or legislative elections. In countries such as South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia, this will be the fifth time voters have cast their ballots since the return to plural politics in the early nineties. Unlike in the past, regular and periodic holding of elections is no longer the issue. What remains an issue is the quality and credibility of such elections. Without a doubt African elections continue to face serious challenges that undermine their credibility and the legitimacy of electoral outcomes. 


Elections in Africa face a number of challenges that include: legal and institutional frameworks that do not promote the rule of law or do not comply with regional and international standards;  electoral management systems that are not impartial and elections are administered in an unprofessional manner; electoral processes, such as voter registration through which voters are excluded from voting; electoral systems that do not ensure that citizens’ votes count; rampant electoral malpractices that include abuse of state resources, opaque election campaign funding, and widespread violence; and vote tabulation processes that are not transparent or seen as credible by the voters. All these factors have been at play in most, if not all, recently held elections. This state of affairs makes electoral processes unpredictable and raises serious questions about the integrity with which elections are being conducted in Africa.


In order to understand whether elections are playing a role in Africa’s democratic consolidation and are providing a viable opportunity for citizens to decide who governs, it is equally important to acknowledge positive developments regarding elections. As mentioned earlier, regular elections are now the norm rather than the exception. A number of countries have undertaken far reaching constitutional and electoral law reforms with the aim of improving the legal and institutional frameworks within which elections are held – so that the rules of the game are agreed upon and are certain. The continent has also witnessed the evolution of regional and continental norms and standards governing the conduct of elections. The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) came into force in 2012 outlawing unconstitutional changes of government and committing member states to conduct credible elections. The African Union (AU) and regional economic communities (e.g. EAC, ECOWAS, and SADC) are actively engaged in electoral processes through election observer missions. Voter turnout has generally increased in recently held elections. Another positive development is the growing role of local civil society organizations in electoral processes. This engagement is through domestic election observation, provision of civic education and advocacy for electoral reforms. An interesting development is the increasing use of information technologies, such as mobile telephony and other social media, by local groups to monitor elections and mobilize young voters.

Predictable process, unpredictable outcome

A quick look at some recently held elections show that in some elections the processes were predictable and the outcome unpredictable to varying degrees. While in some elections the processes were unpredictable and the outcomes unpredictable as well. Yet still there were elections where processes and outcomes were generally predictable.

Ghana probably presents the best case where there is consensus about the rules of the game – making the process predictable while the results are not, reflecting meaningful contestation for political power. Having endured decades of military takeovers and military rule, Ghanaians appear determined to make a break with authoritarian rule. Since returning to plural politics in 1992, Ghana has seen successful democratic succession by changing government through the ballot box for the first time in 2001 when the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) lost to the National Patriotic Party (NPP). Another democratic transition took place in 2009 when the NDC won power from the NPP. The 2012 election, won by the incumbent NDC with a 50.77% share of the vote, was closely contested with the losing NPP garnering a decent 47.74% of votes cast. The electoral process was generally credible although the NPP mounted legal challenges alleging widespread irregularities at more than 10,000 polling stations. Ghana’s Supreme Court dismissed all claims alleging irregularities and fraud. The claimants accepted the court’s verdict. It is important to note the existence of an effective election dispute resolution mechanism in the form of the Supreme Court to whose jurisdiction the contestants were willing to submit themselves. This is in contrast to what happened in the aftermath of Kenya’s 2007 disputed electoral outcomes when ethnic fuelled post-election violence engulfed the nation killing more than a thousand people. Mistrust in the country’s judicial system was one of the underlying causes of the outbreak of post-election violence in Kenya. 

Kenyans got it right in 2013

There was a marked improvement with regard to Kenya’s 2013 elections. The transitional arrangements that were put in place following the disputed 2007 election culminated in the adoption of a national constitution that enjoyed widespread legitimacy. The 2013 elections were conducted on the basis of agreed upon rules and regulations and a reformed judiciary. The new constitution required that for a candidate to win the presidential race one had to get more than 50% of the votes and at least 25% of the vote in more than half of the 47 counties. Uhuru Kenyatta won with 50.51% to Raila Odinga’s 43.7%. Odinga challenged the results in the Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court ruled that Kenyatta had won the election fairly and Odinga accepted the court’s ruling. In this case the contest was close. Electoral rules were well articulated as a result of a new constitution. The winner of the contest was not pre-determined. The results were challenged and both parties trusted the judiciary to adjudicate the dispute with impartiality, thereby avoiding what could have been a replay of the 2007 post-election violence.

While Zimbabwe missed the boat

Zimbabwe provides an interesting contrast with the Kenyan experience. The two countries have striking historical and political similarities. These include an armed struggle against British colonization, a Lancaster House negotiated independence constitution (1963 for Kenya and 1979 for Zimbabwe), a post-independence period of one party domination and a long period of strong man rule.  No doubt that these factors have had a bearing on governance in both countries.  After stiff resistance to undertake political reforms that included constitutional reforms, both Moi and Mugabe succumbed to local pressure to re-write their respective national constitutions. Both parties ended up with negotiated transitional arrangements after disputed elections in 2007 for Kenya and 2008 for Zimbabwe. Such arrangements included the writing and adoption of a new constitution and undertaking reforms that would guarantee credible elections. While Kenya undertook meaningful reforms, especially regarding the Judiciary and electoral laws, Mugabe fiercely resisted reforms that would ensure that there was consensus about the rules of the game and a level political playing field. 

In fact, the country was propelled into an early election by a dubious court ruling that ordered elections to be held by 31st July 2013, barely three months after the adoption of a new constitution and before necessary reforms had been undertaken. The May 2013 elections in Zimbabwe were marred by allegations of irregularities, especially in relation to voter registration. Political parties had not been availed copies of the voters’ roll on the eve of elections as required by law. There was no transparency regarding the number of ballot papers printed. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) tried the best it could under the circumstances to run what was in the end considered a fairly credible election day process.  Mugabe of Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) went on to win 61.09% of the vote with Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) a distant 33.94%. Even ZANU PF was surprised by the extent of its own victory. Initially Tsvangirai mounted a court challenge to his defeat, but soon withdrew the case citing bias on the part of the Judiciary. There was clearly no trust on the part of the MDC that the courts would adjudicate the electoral dispute in an impartial manner. To date the MDC has refused to accept ZANU PF‘s electoral victory as legitimate. The country continues to be gripped by a debilitating economic crisis. Even with a two thirds majority in parliament ZANU PF is failing to respond to the country’s economic woes and is now mired in a mortal succession fight. The opposition MDC has also not been spared the electoral fall-out and split soon after the July 2013 electoral defeat.  It cannot be denied that electoral outcomes in Zimbabwe’s 2013 elections have had profound impact on the country’s political formations.

Predictable process, predictable outcome: Non-democratic contest

In countries such as Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, the Gambia, and several other countries elections are predictable because of the undemocratic manner in which they are conducted. In these countries the electoral contexts are characterized by state control of institutions that manage elections. Freedom of expression and media freedoms are severely curtailed. In most of these countries it is difficult to conclude that a system of electoral democracy exists. The integrity of the electoral processes is so undermined to the point of being discredited. The outcome of electoral contests in these countries is almost always predictable landslide victories for incumbents and long unlimited stay in power. 

Predictable process, predictable outcome – democratic contest

There are also countries that have invested in their election management institutions and systems so that elections are professionally and impartially administered.  South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia are good examples of professional election management bodies whose processes are predictable, but whose electoral outcomes are also predictable. Since gaining independence the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has won every election since independence forty eight years ago. The only thing that has changed has been the margin of its victory with October 2014 election being its worst election having won 37 of the 57 contested seats against the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change’s (UDC) 17. The African National Congress (ANC) and the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) have dominated the electoral scene in South Africa and Namibia respectively. While it is difficult to ascribe ANC and SWAPO dominance to interference with the election management processes and institutions, their dominance is characteristic of former liberation movements, such as CCM in Tanzania, FRELIMO in Mozambique, MPLA in Angola and ZANU PF in Zimbabwe.

Unpredictable process, chaotic outcome  

The May 20th elections in Malawi were a classic example of an electoral process that was unpredictable in the way in which it was managed and the outcome was also unpredictable until the courts intervened. Speculation was rife in the run-up to election day that polling might have to be postponed because of lack of preparedness of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC).  The voter register was being printed a day before elections.  It also emerged that insufficient ballot papers had been printed.  A hasty decision was taken to locally print more ballot papers that had been printed in South Africa.  Only about 25% of polling stations had managed to open by 9 am when polling was supposed to start at 6 am.  It soon became clear that most polling stations did not have adequate materials, such as indelible ink, the voter register, ballot papers, ballot boxes and seals and pens.  Some folks who had queued from as early as 4 am were only able to vote at 2 pm.  Polling had to be halted in some polling stations due to rioting by impatient voters.  Polling had to be extended beyond the initial 6 pm deadline and in some polling centres by an extra two days.  As polls closed and vote counting started, Malawians were frantically debating whether the losing contenders would concede defeat and accept the outcome.  Even before announcement of official results, incumbent president Joyce Banda had alleged massive vote rigging and fraud and demanded an audit of the results.  She then attempted to annul the elections but this was set aside by the High Court that ordered to the MEC to complete the count. After an anxious period in Malawi’s electoral history it appears again that an impartial judiciary saved the day.

So, returning to our initial question of whether elections are delivering democratic outcomes in Africa: the jury is still out. It is a mixed bag in which gains have been registered, but a lot still needs to be done to improve the integrity with which elections are held. While elections will never be a panacea for democratic governance, they are an important aspect of democratic consolidation. It is clear that institutions such as the judiciary play a critical role in underwriting democratic electoral contest, as does an environment in which freedom of expression, assembly and the media are guaranteed. Africa needs to move away from perceiving elections as a zero sum game. 

About the author(s)

Ozias Tungwarara is the regional manager with the Africa Regional Office of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) network based in Johannesburg.


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