The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Some Africans — but not all — are happy with the quality of their elections

The fourth in Afrobarometer’s special democracy summit series on Africa.

People queue outside a polling station in Thokoza, east of Johannesburg, on Nov. 1. (Themba Hadebe/AP)

Two recent electoral contests have renewed optimism in Africa about the transformative power of elections.

In August, challenger Hakainde Hichilema’s victory over Zambian President Edgar Lungu gave democracy advocates hope of reversing the country’s seeming slide into authoritarianism. And just last week, local government elections in South Africa energized opposition supporters and shocked the ruling African National Congress, which fell short of 50 percent of the vote for the first time since the country’s transition to majority rule.

Both of these polls demonstrated that fair elections can serve as the foundation for political change, and perhaps lead to progress against corruption and flagging development.

Other elections stand in sharp contrast. In Uganda, violence and human rights abuses, as well as the weaponization of covid-19 to justify restrictions on campaigning, marred the January 2021 election. President Yoweri Museveni succeeded in extending his 35-year tenure, once again crushing opposition hopes for a transition to a new generation of leadership.

Elections remain one of the central, but also most controversial, institutions of democracy. Findings from Afrobarometer’s 48,084 face-to-face interviews in 34 African countries in 2019-2021 show that Africans are committed to democratic elections — despite their doubts about election quality and whether the ballot box can bring about real change. But these surveys also reveal deep distinctions between countries that enjoy relatively clean elections and those that do not.

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Not all Africans believe elections can bring change

As reported earlier in this series leading up to December’s Summit for Democracy, despite some weakening over the past decade, a commitment to elections as the best system for selecting leaders (75 percent across 34 countries) and to multiparty competition (63 percent) remain strong majority positions across Africa.

At the same time, citizens are skeptical of the capacity of elections to bring about change: Fully 50 percent say they do not think elections are effective in enabling voters “to remove from office leaders who do not do what the people want.” But the range in views is startling: Just 15 percent of Gabonese think elections are an effective means to bring about leadership change, compared with 85 percent in the Gambia. In surveys before their recent change-producing elections, just 56 percent of Zambians and 37 percent of South Africans were optimistic about the effectiveness of elections.

Africans attest to voting freedom

Optimism about the utility of elections in bringing about change supposes some confidence that elections are free and fair. But elections can go wrong — or right — in any number of ways. Key issues range from the fairness of campaign conditions to the safety and integrity of the voting environment and the transparency of the count on election day.

Given analysts’ concerns about election quality in Africa, it may come as a surprise that on average, Africans are quite optimistic about some aspects of their elections.

Perhaps most importantly, almost 9 in 10 (87 percent) say they are free to vote as they choose (Figure 1). Sizable majorities agree in all 34 countries surveyed, including 90 percent or more in 19 countries. Even among Angolans, who are the least confident about their freedom of vote choice, 66 percent say they are free to vote as they choose.

Large majorities also report positively on their country’s election environment. Asked about their most recent election, at least 8 in 10 say they did not observe intimidation (87 percent) or interference (81 percent) by security forces and did not fear intimidation or violence (80 percent). Nearly as many report that bribes-for-votes were not offered (79 percent) and that people voting twice happened rarely or not at all (76 percent).

Figure 1: Positive assessments of election conditions | 34 African countries

Solid majorities also express confidence in ballot secrecy (69 percent), in the fairness of the vote count (69 percent) and in the accuracy of results reported by their electoral commission (64 percent). But considering that 15 percent of Africans report that votes are “often” not counted fairly and 26 percent think the announced results did not match the actual vote, election quality still has important shortcomings to address.

In addition, Africans do not think candidates compete on a level playing field: Only 36 percent say the media covered all candidates fairly in the last election.

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The averages hide some hard truths

These average scores obscure deep problems in some countries, however. For example, while only 3 percent of Namibians say votes are “often” not counted fairly, one-fourth or more of citizens cite inaccurate counts as a frequent problem in Zimbabwe (25 percent), Sudan (30 percent) and Gabon (35 percent).

Similarly, while only 2 percent of Guineans and 3 percent of Cabo Verdeans, Gambians and Ghanaians say they are not free to vote as they choose, 30 percent of Zimbabweans and 29 percent of Gabonese say they lack this basic right.

Mirroring news reports about election irregularities, this pattern plays out across all of the indicators identified above. Findings for the four worst-performing countries — Gabon, Sudan, Cameroon and Zimbabwe — are shown in Figure 2. In all four countries, across 10 indicators (excluding media fairness), an average of more than 1 in 4 citizens cite problems with their electoral system.

Figure 2: Negative assessments of election conditions: worst performers among surveyed countries

Opposition supporters have far less faith in election quality

Our findings suggest that supporters of opposition parties often bear the brunt of repressive electoral tactics. For example, as shown in Figure 3, opposition supporters in Zambia and Zimbabwe are more than four times as likely as ruling party adherents to think that election results are not reported accurately. In Gabon, even ruling party supporters have little faith in the quality of their elections, as 44 percent think results are inaccurate, but opposition supporters are far more negative (72 percent). We see similar differences with regard to personal experiences of intimidation and views about vote choice.

Figure 3: How voters in Gabon, Zambia and Zimbabwe see election obstacles

If Zambia illustrates the varied story of election quality across Africa, its recent presidential contest also shows that the people’s will can prevail despite government repression and fears about accurate reporting, especially with a wide enough margin of victory and the help of vigilant observers.

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Carolyn Logan (@carolynjlogan) is director of analysis for Afrobarometer and associate professor in the department of political science at Michigan State University.

Fredline M’Cormack-Hale (@fredlinemh) is associate professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University, and Afrobarometer co-principal investigator for the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) in Sierra Leone.

Read more in this special series:

Do Africans want democracy — and do they think they’re getting it?

China has invested deeply in Africa. We checked to see whether that is undermining democracy.

Long-serving African presidents say the people want them to stay on. Is that true?

Some Africans — but not all — are happy with the quality of their elections.

Why are Africans dissatisfied with democracy? Think corruption.