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Journal of Democracy 13.2 (2002) 66-80

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Elections Without Democracy

Africa's Range of Regimes

Nicolas van de Walle


In the first half of the 1990s, great political changes swept sub-Saharan Africa. All through the region, single-party regimes found themselves pressed by domestic critics and global trends into allowing legal opposition parties, press freedom, and competitive elections. Multiparty races, which had been rare since the immediate postindependence era three decades earlier, became routine. Opposition candidates began consistently to win legislative seats. In a few countries such as Zambia, opposition politicians who came out ahead in the voting were actually allowed to assume the reins of government.

These unexpected changes raised hopes that a region long known for political and economic failure was about to turn a corner. For a time, the sheer romance of it all hid the truth of how hard it would be to set up stable democratic governments in countries long beset by poverty, authoritarianism, low administrative capacity, and ethnolinguistic divisions. In many of these countries, electoral politics has proven disappointing as corruption, abuses of power, and economic crises continue to plague national life.

Over much of Africa, therefore, fin-de-si'ecle optimism has given way to early-twenty-first-century gloom. Leaving behind the romance of transition, we have entered the era of "democracy with adjectives" as observers strain to invent qualifiers that capture the actual quality and texture of multiparty politics as it is practiced in the region. 1

Such a swing of the pendulum may be inevitable, but the current gloom holds at least three dangers. First, it tempts us to underrate the gains realized over the last decade. Obvious imperfections should not blind us to the clear improvement in competition and participation that [End Page 66] the 1990s have brought. We must not forget that even if day-to-day politics falls short of democratic ideals, the typical sub-Saharan country is measurably more democratic today than it was in the late 1980s.

Second, the gloomy view tempts us to hold African democracies to impossibly strict standards of liberal democracy, standards that even mature Western democracies cannot meet consistently. Political patronage and electoral irregularities, both causes for much hand-wringing when they come to light in fledgling democracies, are hardly unknown in the West, as the U.S. presidential election of 2000 reminded us. Nor are vacuous campaigns and overly partisan contenders found only in young democracies. Even if the shift to democratic procedures cannot instantly transform sociopolitical norms, it is still to be desired and sought after.

Third, disappointment tempts us to group all of sub-Saharan Africa's several dozen multiparty polities into the same category of "imperfect democracy," though even a cursory analysis shows that politics is practiced quite differently from country to country, and that they hardly appear to be all on the same path. In fact, a careful comparison of political systems is precisely what we need if we want to grasp why some countries have made substantial democratic progress while others have not.

The Rise of Multipartism

Between 1989 and the end of 2000, sub-Saharan Africa witnessed 70 presidential elections (spread across most of the region's 48 countries) involving more than one candidate. 2 Over the same period, legislative elections involving at least two parties were held at least once in 42 countries—an average of more than seven elections a year. By the late 1990s, national legislatures in 39 of the 48 sub-Saharan countries contained representatives from at least two political parties. Only Congo-Kinshasa, Eritrea, Rwanda, Somalia, Swaziland, and Uganda held no multiparty elections whatsoever.

How much progress was this? A great deal when compared with the period from 1985 to 1989, when only nine of these countries held competitive multiparty elections. From 1989 to 2000, moreover, 35 countries managed to hold more than one cycle of competitive elections, in nearly every case after the incumbents had reached the prescribed end of their constitutional mandate. Ten countries convened three such elections; Niger even held four. Clearly a pattern of...


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