Togo's elections scheduled for Thursday, 4 March, 2010, are the first in more than a dozen votes expected to take place in sub-Saharan Africa this year. Our correspondent spoke with several African election experts about their expectations for the continent's packed election schedule.
Analyst Chris Hennemeyer has spent many years monitoring, discussing and comparing elections in Africa. Now working with the U.S.-based Bridging the Divide development research group, Hennemeyer says the elections this year will be varied.
"The elections could be categorized into good, bad and ugly," said Chris Hennemeyer. "I think you will see some really messy ones in places like Cote d'Ivoire [Ivory Coast], if they decide at long last to hold their elections. Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda will all be pretty contentious."
Hennemeyer says legislative and presidential elections in Tanzania set for October will be in the good category and that voting should be calm in authoritarian Burkina Faso in late-November. But, he says, many other elections are more difficult to predict.
But Almani Cyllah, Africa regional director for the U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, says unpredictability means progress.
"Good or bad - at least we are seeing that our people are getting the opportunity to make a decision as to who they want to lead them because in the past, we already knew the leaders; we already knew the winners," said Almani Cyllah. "This time, we see elections, even though we may have a sense of who is going to win, we see the elections as being competitive."
The first major elections are scheduled in Togo, where voting initially was set for February 28. Elections are now slated for Thursday (3/4/10).
The campaigning has been spirited there. But Chris Hennemeyer points out that the main opposition leader is not in the race.
"Really, the only truly national candidate, if you can call him that - Gilchrist Olympio - is not standing once again," he said. "He is sort of the perennial opposition leader in Togo. He was excluded from the 2005 election because he did not meet the residency requirements having been in exile. This time, he apparently has not passed a physical exam or has not shown up to take his physical exam. So really, there is not a giant opposition figure to step in and take the elections away from Faure Gnassingbe."
Togo's incumbent President Faure Gnassingbe, the son of long-time leader Gnassingbe Eyadema, initially became president in a military coup after his father died in 2005.
A recurring problem in African elections has been establishing proper voting lists. Chris Hennemeyer of Bridging the Divide says the situation in Ivory Coast is a prime example.
"They have a massive population of people whose roots lie in other countries in the region, particularly in Burkina Faso and Mali, and they do not know what to do to include those people politically," said Hennemeyer. "And so registration tends to exclude people who do not have the means to demonstrate that they are so-called 'true Ivorians.' On the other hand, [Ivory Coast President] Laurent Gbagbo, I think, has no desire to give up power - probably ever - and he has used every weapon in his arsenal to hang on to power, and he has been very cagey about it."
Mr. Gbagbo first came to power in elections in 2000 having campaigned against a military ruler. But vote counting was interrupted and the two main opposition leaders were barred from running. New elections first scheduled for 2005 have repeatedly been pushed back. The situation deteriorated recently when the head of the election commission was replaced after accusations that he was adding non-Ivorians to the voting list.
Even though elections in Africa might lead to divisions within societies, New York University political scientist Leonard Wantchekon of Benin says free and fair elections are the best way to bring about unity in the long run.
"Even if ethnic differences will appear as a result of elections, it is also the case that elections are the best way to resolve those differences," said Leonard Wantchekon. "We tend to forget that democracy is not just some set of values, such as freedom and others, but also a very practical mechanism for conflict resolution."
Elections expected this year that might be postponed or troubled are in Guinea, the Central African Republic and Madagascar - all countries in post-coup and strife-torn situations. Last week, rebels and the opposition in the Central African Republic, for example, said conditions were not ready for a vote now scheduled for April 25.
Analyst Chris Hennemeyer says that in most cases, he favors elections going ahead as scheduled.
"If one waits until conditions are absolutely propitious for elections, one would be waiting for decades, I am afraid, in many African countries," he said.
In Burundi, the situation is different. Dozens of parties are preparing for elections set for May through July.
Almani Cyllah with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems says he is encouraged by the enthusiasm.
"Burundi is a good case in point where we think the competition is going to be fierce," said Cyllah. "It is seldom now to see a 99 percent win for any particular candidate. So it shows our people are getting the message. The candidates are able to participate and they are able to get their messages across."
Despite the challenges, Africa election experts say they are encouraged by the proliferation of opposition media, civil society organizations and election monitoring groups across the continent. They add that these developments show that successful elections are not the only barometer of democratic progress in Africa.