FREE AND FAIR ELECTIONS OP-ED
Summit for Democracy is an opportunity to restore African citizens’ trust
Leaders and institutions meeting under the theme ‘free, fair and transparent elections in Africa’ at the forthcoming Summit for Democracy in Lusaka, Zambia, need to address the challenge of waning citizen trust in the ability of elections to deliver democratic dividends.
The Summit for Democracy, co-hosted by the government of Zambia and the US from March 29 to 30, comes at an opportune time with national or parliamentary elections planned in a number of African countries in 2023.
In focusing on elections, summit leaders recognise their centrality to democracy. They would also do well to heed the troubling findings by Afrobarometer, the pan-African survey research network, which has reported that, while the majority of Africans want to choose a leader through elections, and participation in elections remains high, support for elections as a way of holding leaders accountable has weakened.
The way elections are held is a key starting point for building trust in democratic processes. Poorly managed elections and a repressive or violent electoral environment have a significant effect on citizens’ trust in elections and their ability to hold leaders accountable, and hampers democratic progression.
For example, during Nigeria’s recent presidential elections, the emergence of the Labour Party led by Peter Obi initially reinvigorated citizens’ interest. However, the elections were marred by violence and intimidation and an inefficient election process which prevented thousands of Nigerians from voting and resulted in the lowest turnout in the country’s democratic history and opposition protests.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Nigeria’s 2023 elections fail to deliver the promised hope – it’s a tale of déjà vu”
The institutional environment – one in which civil liberties and political rights are guaranteed and protected – is also critical for democracy. This will be tested during upcoming elections in Zimbabwe, Eswatini and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In Zimbabwe, the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change led by Nelson Chamisa goes up against President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). There are growing concerns of unrest in an environment plagued by 20 years of political and economic instability, legislative attacks against civil society and increased violence perpetrated by the security forces and supporters of Zanu-PF against human rights activists and the opposition.
Later in 2023, Eswatini will hold senate, house of assembly, urban local and Tinkhundla elections. However, the country – the last absolute monarchy in Africa – has become increasingly unstable over the past two years. In 2021, it was rocked by mass protests when citizens took to the streets to initially protest against police brutality and then demanded democratic reforms.
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Eswatini continues to experience intermittent protests and acts of violence and the security forces have responded with brutal repression, including arbitrary arrests and detention, excessive use of force and abductions of civil society and opposition political members.
Human rights organisations have documented more than 80 deaths, hundreds injured and thousands of arbitrary arrests. In January 2023, leading human rights activists Thulani Maseko was killed in what many believe was a political assassination.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “Thulani Maseko assassination — allegations of SA ‘mercenary involvement’, and a witness details suspicious police activities”
The violence and refusal of the Eswatini authorities to engage in any discussions on democratic reforms does not bode well for the elections and could plunge the country into further turmoil.
In the DRC, President Felix Tshisekedi is expected to run for a second term. The conflict in the eastern part of the country puts a spotlight on presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December 2023. The violence in the east has left thousands of Congolese dead and hundreds of thousands displaced over the past two years.
The 2018 elections, which brought president Tshisekedi into power, were marred by technical issues and irregularities, including a delay in voting for more than a million people. Questions remain over the Tshisekedi’s ability to institute the necessary reforms, and that of the electoral commission to manage the electoral process.
Examples to follow
At the same time, improved elections in a number of countries in recent years should serve as a roadmap for democratic consolidation across the continent.
The Freedom in the World Report launched by my organisation, Freedom House, on 9 March 2023, highlights how in Zambia, general elections in 2021 led to a peaceful transfer of power from a governing party to the opposition – a significant marker of democratic progression.
In Kenya, despite concerns by the opposition, elections were relatively peaceful, with many Kenyans noting that they were markedly more competitive and transparent. Past elections have been affected by violence and electoral misconduct.
The results of general elections in Lesotho in 2022 marked a change from the decades-long dominance of the old guard of political parties and leaders when Sam Matekane and his Revolution for Prosperity party won.
Summit leaders should draw lessons from these elections and come up with clear commitments to enhance the integrity and legitimacy of electoral processes on the continent and adhere to international election standards. This will go some way towards restoring people’s trust in elections as an important component of democracy and a tool for holding leaders accountable. DM/MC
Tiseke Kasambala is Africa Director at Freedom House.