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Amid Uprisings, Africa Readies for Slew of National Polls

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 7 2011 (IPS) - As the resounding cry for multi-party democracy reverberates violently throughout the Middle East, the African continent, long known for military rule and dictatorial regimes, is readying for a slew of presidential and parliamentary elections this year.

If everything goes as scheduled, at least 19 countries in North and sub-Saharan Africa are expected to hold national elections, according to the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security (GCEDS).

The countries due for presidential and/or parliamentary elections include Chad, Madagascar, Seychelles and Zimbabwe (in May), Cape Verde, Sao Tome & Principe and Tunisia (July) Egypt (September), Liberia, Cameroon and Zambia (October), Mauritania and Democratic Republic of Congo (November) and Gabon (December).

Already four countries – Nigeria, Benin, Niger and Uganda – have either held elections or are preparing for a run-off in a second round of polling.

The growing trend towards parliamentary democracy in Africa comes amidst disputed elections or abolition of presidential term limits in several countries in the region, including Djibouti, Kenya, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Vidar Helgesen, secretary-general of the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), an intergovernmental organisation with a mandate to support sustainable democracy worldwide, told IPS the picture in Africa is “uneven”.

The two neighbouring countries in West Africa – Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire – can serve to exemplify the choices the people and governments of Africa are facing as 19 African countries will have nationwide elections in the coming 18 months, he said.

“Between the steady democratic process and peaceful transfers of power that Ghana has demonstrated on the one hand, and the ugly effort at stealing elections in Cote d’Ivoire, Africa provides a range of experiences.” he noted.

Asked how he would characterise the ongoing transformation of African countries into full-fledged democracies, Helgesen said: “A general answer is that there is some progress, but that more speedy progress is possible.”

“And even where you have relatively free elections,” he pointed out, “democracy is often skin-deep.”

“Regrettably there are too many power holders who believe that incumbency is more important than democracy,” he added.

The GCEDS, which is chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says it will work to convince different stakeholders why “elections with integrity” matter not just for democracy but also for security, human rights and development.

“Building democracy is a complex process,” says Annan.

Elections are only a starting point but if their integrity is compromised, so is the legitimacy of democracy, he warns.

Recent events in Cote d’Ivoire – where an incumbent president has refused to concede victory after losing the elections – and elsewhere have highlighted “more clearly than ever that elections are vital to democratic government, but they are not sufficient.”

“Too often, we see incumbents rig the elections, illicit funding or media bias distort the electoral process, and losing candidates refuse to accept the results,” GCEDS said in a statement released here.

“Where elections are marred in these ways, people lose faith in democracy and the political process, and human rights are put at risk,” it added.

The GCEDs, jointly created by the International Institute for Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and the Kofi Annan Foundation, comprises 12 eminent individuals, including former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisasari, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

“Many an African dictator is trembling in his (invariably dictators appear to be mostly men) boots, following popular uprisings that swept longtime rulers out of power in Tunisia and Egypt,” writes William Gumede in the ‘AfricaFocus Bulletin.’

“But will the domino effect of these popular uprisings also sweep dictators out of power further South,” he asks?

IDEA’s Helgesen told IPS that while democracy is more than elections, democracy cannot make progress unless the will of the people is heard and respected.

Democracy is about citizen’s control over decision-making, and the equality between citizens in the exercise of that control, he added.

“Rigging and stealing of elections and constitutional manipulation in order to perpetuate power are about the opposite,” he declared.

Asked what is needed most for Africa to move towards full fledged democracies, Helgesen said political will of the leaders is important, but the political will of the people is even more important, as demonstrated by the democracy uprisings in North Africa.

“Leaders in the rest of Africa should take note: if you don’t respect and reflect the will of the people, then the will of the people will eventually eject you,” he said.

Education of the electorate is important, but not a prerequisite for democracy. Social and economic progress likewise is critical, but they don’t rank higher in peoples minds than democracy, he said.

“Tunisia and Egypt are telling tales: people did not ask for social and economic benefits. They called for the freedom and dignity that democracy can provide,” Helgesen pointed out.

Asked if Africa should follow the concepts of Western democracy or customise its democracy to suit the continent’s cultural and political mores, Helgesen told IPS: “Any democracy needs to be shaped by its citizens and the societal context they live in.”

There is no one Western model of democracy and there can be no one African model: Africa is a diverse continent.

Democracy is not Western: by far the majority of people living in democracies today live in the global South, he pointed out.

These countries provide a diverse range of democratic experience. There is no one single model, he said. “But democracy needs to rest on the principle of citizens control over decision-making, and the equality of citizens in the exercise of that control.”

Upon that basis, he argued, “you can build different models. But would-be autocrats should be wary of trying to deceive people by arguing that democracy does not fit our culture.”

That argument has been proven wrong time and time again: in Latin America, in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, and in the Arab world, Helgesen declared.

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