In Malawi’s presidential election in May, incumbent President Peter Mutharika narrowly won reelection. February’s Senegalese election was quite different, with incumbent Macky Sall easily claiming victory. Although Malawians continue to take to the streets to protest the May election, Senegalese have long accepted their election outcome.
If one were to judge African elections by the situation in Malawi, the verdict might be that democracy is retreating on the continent. But looking at the Senegalese case, one could argue that democracy is consolidating on the continent. Which is true?
To better understand the patterns and shifts in democracy and elections in Africa, we selected Jaimie Bleck and Nicolas van de Walle’s new book, “Electoral Politics in Africa Since 1990: Continuity in Change,” for this week’s installment in the sixth annual African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular.
So what’s the verdict on democracy?
There is no short answer in “Electoral Politics” to our question of whether democracy is retreating or consolidating in Africa. Bleck and van de Walle are careful not to call the elections they study “democratic” and instead refer to them as “multiparty.”
Though elections have become a regular feature in Africa, the authors do not claim that the region has experienced democratic consolidation. (By democratic consolidation, political scientists mean a complete transition and maturation to a full democracy without concern of a reversion to dictatorship.)
This is a book aimed at political scientists, but it remains an accessible, comprehensive survey of 25 years of elections across African countries south of the Sahara. Bleck and van de Walle write clear summaries of the existing political science scholarship on voting and elections around the world, requiring little background knowledge of their readers. Likewise, the data they analyze — and the analysis of that data — are straightforward and do not require sophisticated quantitative analytical abilities to interpret.
Technological and demographic changes make this a timely publication.
“Electoral Politics” comes at an important time. Even if elections have become a regular feature of African politics, it’s not clear there has been much advancement of democracy since the democratic transitions of the early 1990s. Furthermore, the extensive changes in Africa — the increased urbanization, growing youth population and advancements in communication technologies — make it essential to revisit earlier arguments about elections, campaigns and voters in Africa to see what remains valid and what new trends may be emerging.
The Economist is uncertain about whether African democracy is strong or fragile, but depending on which article you read, Bleck and van de Walle’s quarter-century overview gives us sufficient evidence to take stock of democracy on the continent. The authors split the difference between Afro-pessimism and optimism about African democracy in an analytically nuanced and empirically validated way.
Here’s why elections can be risky
The central argument Bleck and van de Walle make in “Electoral Politics” is that elections are not necessarily democratizing. Instead, elections are political moments of greater uncertainty and heightened attention to politics. In some cases, these moments can lead to change, including greater democracy.
To be sure, incumbent presidents such as Peter Mutharika and Macky Sall have a significant advantage in elections. The most obvious campaign advantages are the state resources and media dominance that incumbents enjoy, particularly in countries where reaching voters in remote areas can be difficult and expensive.
Still, sometimes incumbents lose. As Bleck and van de Walle write, multiparty elections provide “real risks for even the most authoritarian regimes” and positive change has often “resulted from elections or from national debates that relate to upcoming elections.” A clear example Bleck and van de Walle share in the opening of their book is the shocking outcome in the December 2016 Gambian elections, when long-ruling President Yahya Jammeh lost to Adama Barrow. Jammeh, known for his highly repressive rule, had regularly held elections since gaining power in a 1994 military coup.
Going beyond this exceptional outcome, one key takeaway from this book is that African electoral politics is hardly exotic. Like candidates elsewhere in the world, candidates running in African elections tend to be highly educated older men. And, as in other regions of the world, African voters are more likely to turn out in competitive elections. There’s an important difference in Africa: Voter turnout is declining globally, but Bleck and van de Walle found that turnout has been relatively stable in Africa over the past 25 years.
“Electoral Politics” makes an important contribution to our understanding of elections, voters and democracy in Africa. There is a lot of information and analysis in this book, but it’s not a heavy tome to carry nor a slog to read. I expect to see this become a foundational text for researchers and analysts to build on and dig deeper, as the subject of any one chapter could fill a book on its own.
This future research, readers can no doubt hope, will follow Bleck and van de Walle’s lead in selecting countries to study that broadly represent the diverse experiences concerning elections and democracy in Africa.
Previous posts in this year’s series: