HomeOpinion & AnalysisPolls-equal-democracy mantra wrong

Polls-equal-democracy mantra wrong

By Blessing-Miles Tendi

THE early 1990s were a period of profound enthusiasm for multiparty democracy in most of Africa. The centralist or communist one-party system was steadily challenged by the diffusion

of the idea of multiparty electoral democracy.

The work of local forms of civil society and international financial aid agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB) brought about the transformation from single-party to multiparty democracy in post-Cold War Africa.

Internally, African civil society, particularly church groups, brought active lobbying and protest to bear on reluctant single party governments in Zambia and Malawi, for example, resulting in the introduction of multiparty systems.

Externally, international financial donor agencies like the WB and IMF attached conditionality to the disbursement of financial aid. The adoption of multiparty democracy became a pre-requisite for African states seeking to access international donor support.

However, a decade after the euphoria and tumultuous change brought about by the advent of multiparty democracy on southern Africa’s political landscape, critical problems remain. During the 1990s — and even today — there was a tendency to reduce the concept of democracy to the staging of multiparty elections.

If an African state turned its back on the one-party system in favour of “regular free and fair multiparty elections”, it was labelled a democracy by international governments and aid donors, and therefore qualified for international donor support. But such reductionism was highly misinformed.

Staging a multiparty election does not make a given state a democracy. The enactment of laws in line with the general will, protecting human rights, respecting the rule of law and good governance are some of the other important ideals now identified with democracy.

Nevertheless, the erroneous belief that the holding of multiparty elections is tantamount to being a democracy seems to have seeped into the political thought and vocabulary of southern Africa’s political elite.

It is commonplace for the Zimbabwean political elite to dismiss allegations that Zimbabwe is not a democracy on the basis that since Independence in 1980 it has never failed to hold multiparty elections in accordance with the Zimbabwean constitution. But Zimbabwe falls far short in upholding other democratic tenets such as freedom of the media.

Elections in poorer southern African countries like Malawi and Mozambique are far too dependent on external resources. Independent electoral commissions to efficiently administer multiparty elections have yet to find a foothold throughout southern Africa except in the more mature democracies of Botswana and South Africa.

The right of all political parties to have equal access to public media continues to be violated in Zimbabwe and Namibia where the ruling parties receive the majority of public media attention. When the opposition in these two countries does receive the attention of the public media it is mostly to demonise and ridicule the opposition.

In Angola, regionalism largely influences how Angolans vote with the Angolan leader Eduardo Dos Santos consistently drawing his main support base from northern Angola, for example. Needless to say, credible elections still seem very far off in post-conflict Angola.

Some of southern Africa’s multiparty systems have ceased to be competitive. They have come to be dominated by a single mammoth party commanding the vast majority of seats in parliament, as evidenced by the 70% majority support South Africa’s ruling African National Congress secured in April 2004.

Over the past 10 years, the number of political parties competing in national elections in southern Africa has not declined significantly. Smaller political parties are still not receiving the NO vote from the electorate.

This electoral trend indicates a failure of southern Africa’s multiparty democracies to stabilise. Stabilisation is crucial for democratic consolidation. The multiparty system of any existing mature democracy today is characterised by stable and institutionalised political parties with a history or tradition.

These characteristics act as stabilising agents for a multiparty system. They prevent the degeneration of a multiparty system into a chaotic matrix of political parties with little or no sound political agenda. A feature that tends to unnecessarily split the electorate’s vote.

The splitting of the electorate’s vote increases the possibility of the manipulative rise to power of undemocratic forces. Had the opposition in Malawi’s national election of May 2004 fielded only one candidate to face the eventual winner, Bingu wa Mutharika, the opposition’s single candidate would have defeated Mutharika. For Mutharika only secured 35% of the votes in Malawi’s 2004 presidential election.

In addition, the fact that the authenticity of results of multiparty elections in southern Africa is always violently disputed on the streets reflects not only an absence of effective electoral conflict management mechanisms but also a lack of confidence in the electoral systems altogether.

South African President Thabo Mbeki recently commented that “next year, 2005, elections within the Sadc region will be held in the DRC, Mauritius, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. We are certain that these elections will confirm the excellent track record our region achieved this year (2004), concluding with no manipulation behind the scenes to ensure the ruling party is re-elected.”

In light of the problems facing democracy in southern Africa, Mbeki’s comments require further justification.

*Blessing-Miles Tendi is a Zimbabwean based in the UK.

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