African legal scholar Andrew Novak and I make the case at Reuters today that despite the reelection of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, sub-Saharan Africa is making gains with respect to democracy, and we examine the eight countries with elections between mid-July and September 30 alone (though as of earlier this week, Madagascar seems to be postponed until later this year).
We look to three catalysts in particular:
Recent African elections demonstrate progress in three ways. First, long-delayed or boycotted elections are finally taking place, removing military regimes or one-party states from power.
Second, for the first time, several countries having enjoyed two or three free and fair elections in a row. This is significant because running two well-managed elections improves the odds that there will be a third, and then a fourth — turning an isolated electoral experiment into a true democratic tradition.
Third, elections once marred by violence have been carried out peacefully, improving the credibility of political leaders and encouraging coalition-building and a non-zero sum attitude toward governing.
So for every Zimbabwe, there’s a Mali, which represents a return to two decades of democratic traditions. There’s a Kenya, where president Uhuru Kenyatta’s election earlier this spring wasn’t marred by violence, despite a close race. There’s a Guinea, where long-delayed elections are moving forward after fraught negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition. Even in Zimbabwe, July’s elections passed without the violence that resulted in 2008, and Mugabe’s successor will likely have to be much more responsive to economic and social pressures than Mugabe, who too often gets a free pass from Zimbabweans and other Africans due to his founding-father status in leading the country out of white minority rule in 1979-80.
Our conclusion is that there’s room for measured optimism:
It would be a mistake to view the developing African democracy with the same kind of rapture than some international investors have developed in recent years for Africa’s “cheetah” economies. But in the wake of international discouragement over Zimbabwe’s vote, it would also be a mistake to conclude that African democracy is in retreat, when there are so many signs that it continues to grow stronger.
Photo credit to Joe Penney / Reuters.