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Experts Meet to Improve Elections Process in Africa

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station as soldiers watch in Bissau, April 13, 2014.

A woman casts her ballot at a polling station as soldiers watch in Bissau, April 13, 2014.

Election experts say 80 percent of voting results in African ballots are contested because of flaws in the democratic process. Experts recently gathered to make recommendations to improve the process.

African elections are prone to violence, corruption and manipulation. And experts say democratic systems need to be strengthened in order to make voting more free and fair on the continent.

At a conference in Yaounde, experts like Tambe Tiku Christopher - with Cameroon's National Electoral Commission - says prime examples of flaws can be found in the ethnic violence that surrounded Kenya’s vote in 2007, post-election violence on the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011 and political instability when the losing presidential candidate refused to concede following elections in Ivory Coast three years ago.

"The system of elections we have been organizing in Africa is not working, that is why you find more than 80 percent of the elections being disputed. You find people say elections were manipulated, elections were rigged," he said. "This has become a preponderant situation which we have to deal with."

Mpho Mothoagae, from the University of South Africa, says countries often push elections as a way to fast track democratic credentials - but it doesn’t work unless the institutions which are the foundation of democracy are in place. He notes recent election campaigns have actually produced the opposite result: military coups - such as in Mali and Guinea-Bissau in 2012.

"Africa should learn from the spring revolution in the North - the African people and the African masses are looking forward to credible governments, to governments that are elected by the people for the people," Mothoagae said. "More and more of the African masses are looking forward to leaders who are going to be elected in a way that best reflects their lives and their areas of development."

Common elements in free elections, experts note, include an independent media, judiciary, a non-politicized military, free flow of information for an informed citizenry, and transparency.

Mothoagae notes it is not just fragile democracies that need better election processes but dictatorial regimes are at risk due to mass discontent.

"One cannot allow a situation like that one in Zimbabwe, like that one where a person for over three or four decades actually continues to be a ruler," Mothoagae said. "That the ruling party continues to be dominant without any further development in the
peoples democracy."

Zimbabwe has held several elections - the most recent in 2013. But Western and international rights groups note that the ruling party under President Robert Mugabe uses pervasive voter intimidation, violence, vote-rigging and doesn’t allow transparent monitoring.

But experts agree there are homegrown bright spots on the continent that can serve as models for all of Africa.

South African-born Kealeboga Maphunye, research chair in Electoral Democracy at the University of South Africa, notes many of those are in southern Africa - but not all.

"The idea is to make sure that you look at best practices from countries such as South Africa, such as Namibia, even Botswana to some extent," said Maphunye. "Even Senegal has been cited in some instances until recently, where elections are eventually able to ensure that there is a stable government and the idea is not to dwell on the negative tendencies. Those are learning moments.”

Experts note that South Africa, Namibia and Senegal have comparatively stronger independent electoral commissions established by their constitutions which make them less prone to manipulation.

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems - which assists emerging and developing democracies organize credible voting - also notes that public perception of the election process is a key factor. Often that means election preparations are carried out in an ordered manner, from training poll workers, drafting election laws, inclusive voter registration, procuring and distributing election materials and having a timetable for all this including announcing the results in a transparent manner.