Second Elections in Africa
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Second Elections in Africa

The early 1990s saw a wave of competitive multiparty elections in Africa. These contests can be described as “founding” elections in the sense that they marked for various countries a transition from an extended period of authoritarian rule to fledgling democratic government. By the middle of the 1990s, this wave had crested. Although founding elections continued to be conducted in African countries that were latecomers to the political-reform bandwagon, they took place less frequently than earlier in the decade. Meanwhile, in countries that had experienced early regime change, expiring electoral cycles gave rise to a groundswell of “second” elections. Less glamorous than the landmark contests that gave birth to democracy, these events nevertheless held out the possibility that democratic routines might be deepened.

The consolidation of democracy involves the widespread acceptance of rules to guarantee political participation and political competition. Elections—which empower ordinary citizens to choose among contestants for top political office—clearly promote both sorts of rules. But analysts do not agree on the role that elections play in the consolidation of democracy. Some, like Samuel P. Huntington, use electoral criteria for measuring consolidation: the so-called two-turnover test. 1 Against such an approach, Terry Karl has raised the specter of a “fallacy of electoralism.” 2 As experience with “illiberal” [End Page 51] democracies shows, elections can coexist with systematic abuses of political rights and the disenfranchisement of much of the population. 3

I hold a middle view in this debate: while seeking to avoid the electoral fallacy, I try not to commit its antithesis—what Seligson and Booth call the “anti-electoralist fallacy” 4 —by assuming that elections never matter for democratization. I recognize that elections do not, in and of themselves, constitute a consolidated democracy. This end-state also requires civil rights and due process of law; checks on arbitrary executive power; civilian control of the military; and an independent press and civil society. In a consolidated democracy, citizens and politicians alike accept that this array of institutions is the only legitimate arrangement for governing public life.

But while elections and democracy are not synonymous, elections remain fundamental, not only for installing democratic governments, but as a necessary requisite for broader democratic consolidation. The regularity, openness, and acceptability of elections signal whether basic constitutional, behavioral, and attitudinal foundations are being laid for sustainable democratic rule. It is meaningful to study elections for the simple reason that, while you can have elections without democracy, you cannot have democracy without elections. If nothing else, the convening of scheduled multi-party elections serves the minimal function of marking democracy’s survival. The most immediate concern for many of Africa’s fragile new democracies is whether they will endure at all. By recording the occurrence of a second competitive election, we can at least confirm that democratic gains have not been completely reversed by executive fiat or military coup.

In assessing second elections, the empirical tasks are straightforward. The first concerns electoral quantity. Are second elections held? And if so, do they take place on time? The answers here help ascertain how strictly officeholders subject themselves to the rule of law. Incumbents who respect electoral schedules (rather than illegally altering election timing to increase their chances of holding on to power) acknowledge that good governance requires observance of at least some constitutional constraints.

Next come questions of electoral quality. Exactly how free and fair are second elections? Definitive judgments are difficult whenever the quality of elections varies across different stages of the process. For example, flawed voter-registration exercises or highly unfair campaigns may be followed by relatively open and free balloting. But to the extent that observers report gross deficiencies at any stage of an election, its integrity can be called into dispute. In addition, one must consider whether an election is boycotted by opposition parties. Whereas widespread involvement by various political parties probably indicates the absence of major electoral deficiencies, a boycott seems to signal a lack of agreement on the rules of the democratic game. Yet the quality of [End Page 52] boycotted elections can be ambiguous; we should remain alert to the possibility that a boycott, rather...