Africa

Double or nothing: run-off elections will raise the stakes in Mali and Zimbabwe

By Simon Allison 30 July 2013

On a purely theoretical level, run-off elections seem like a great idea. In practice, not so much. With a very high likelihood of both Mali and Zimbabwe heading for a second round of voting, SIMON ALLISON looks at the problems inherent in the double ballot system – and why Zimbabwe should be a lot more worried than Mali.

In March this year, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto nervously watched the results of the Kenyan election trickle in. They saw they were in front, which was encouraging, but it wasn’t enough. To win properly, to win outright, they needed to secure more than 50% of the vote – and avoid a dreaded, unpredictable run-off election.

The run-off is something we’ll never have to worry about in South Africa, not unless our Constitution changes radically. We elect our leaders in a proportional representation system, which means we don’t actually vote for the president directly – we vote for Parliament, and then Parliament gets the privilege of appointing the head of state.

But in Kenya, as in many other countries around the world – including Mali and Zimbabwe – the run-off is a vital part of the electoral process. It’s actually a good idea, premised on the theory that no president is really legitimate unless they can claim support from an absolute majority of the people.

Here’s how it works: in the first round of voting, if no candidate gets an absolute majority (50%-plus), then there’ll be another election, usually a few weeks later. This one will be different, however, because only the two most popular candidates from the first round remain on the ballot. This means if the candidate you like didn’t make it, you still get to have a say in choosing your president – and the candidate will know he or she has the support of at least half the country as either their first or second choice.

As it turned out, there was no need for a run-off in Kenya. When all the counting was done and dusted, Kenyatta and Ruto’s politically convenient electoral alliance was well ahead of its main rival, Raila Odinga (with perhaps a bit of help from suspiciously spoiled ballots and supportive constituencies that reported more than 100% turnout), and fractionally over that 50% mark – the final tally gave them 50.07%.

Kenyatta and Ruto could celebrate, but so too could everyone else worried about what the implications of a run-off election may have been. For all their theoretical value, they can be messy, impractical affairs – and expensive too. After months of preparation for the first election, the harried electoral commission has to do it all over again. New ballots must be printed; election observers have to book another flight out or extend their hotel stay; another public holiday must be declared. Run-offs are often a logistical nightmare.

They can also be an exceptionally dangerous time. Cast your mind back to Zimbabwe in 2008, where, contrary to all expectations, Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party came second in the first round of voting, behind Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC who received 47.9% of the vote. This was an impressive achievement from Tsvangirai, but not impressive enough – he wasn’t able to secure the election in the first round, so a run-off was scheduled.

This was the cue for the widespread, well-documented campaign of violence committed by Zanu-PF militias and Zanu-PF-aligned state security forces against any and all opposition. The reaction to Tsvangirai’s success was so swift, and so bloody, that Tsvangirai and his party decided to boycott the second round rather than keep exposing their supporters to the unprecedented levels of intimidation. This, of course, suited Mugabe perfectly well – and he cantered to victory, unopposed.

This is not to say that under a different system, Mugabe would happily have accepted his loss with good grace and ridden off into one of those beautiful Zimbabwean sunsets (although we can but dream …); but that the two ballot system, and the inherent instability of the transitional period between the two ballots, lends itself to post-electoral manipulation and intimidation – especially in countries which are already unstable, and for political parties who have a demonstrated propensity for violence.

This week, two of Africa’s most unstable countries – Mali and Zimbabwe, again – are going or have gone to the polls. Malians voted on Sunday, while Zimbabweans will follow suit on Wednesday. Both countries use the two-ballot system, and in both countries the vote is expected to be close – close enough that run-offs are considered likely outcomes.

In Mali, the sheer number of candidates means that it’s going to be difficult for one to amass more than half the vote (26 people are contesting the election). Preliminary results suggest that former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (known as IBK) has a commanding lead, but will it be enough to avoid a repeat performance on August 11? Unlikely. But despite the administrative headache – and it’s a big one – this might be an instance in which a run-off might actually work to the country’s advantage. With 24 candidates removed from the picture, IBK will take on the second most popular candidate (probably Somaila Cisse, another old establishment figure) in a straight winner-takes-all contest, in which the winner emerges with not just the presidency but a genuine claim of political legitimacy – something that’s been in very short supply in Mali in the last couple of years.

In Zimbabwe, however, the stakes are much higher. Unlike Mali, Zimbabwe’s political divisions are reflected at the ballot box: Robert Mugabe versus Morgan Tsvangirai, Zanu-PF versus MDC-T. Mugabe will be desperate to win in the first round, because the electoral calculations don’t work in his favour in a run-off. The opposition movement’s greatest weakness is that it is divided, primarily between various factions of the MDC with the MDC-T being the most popular. In a run-off, this weakness is nullified because all other opposition figures are removed from the equation, solidifying the opposition vote behind Tsvangirai and the MDC-T.

But Tsvangirai, bearing history in mind, will be just as desperate to avoid a second ballot – and the violence which preceded it five years ago. He’ll want to win fair and square in the first round so that there is no space for Mugabe’s thugs to undermine the popular vote once again.

No one, in other words, wants a run-off election – a good idea in theory, but not always so practical. DM

Photo: Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe addresses an election rally in Bulawayo, about 439km west of the capital Harare, July 27,2013. Zimbabwe will hold general elections on 31 July. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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