African Elections as Vehicles for Change

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I have just published an article on when African elections actually lead to political change in the Journal of Democracy. The aim of the paper is to explain when elections do and do not result in opposition victories, and hence create possibilities for a significant change in public policy. I show that across the continent the most significant factor determining the chances of the opposition party is whether or not the incumbent stands for re-election. In other words, ruling parties tend to perform far worse when forced to run a new candidate, which happens when the previous leader died in office, resigned, was replaced, or was forced to step down as a result of constitutional term-limits. The article suggests three main reasons why this is the case, and illustrates them with examples from Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Zambia.

That opposition parties are far more likely to win when the incumbent president does not stand is important, because transfers of power may disrupt established corruption networks, boost confidence in the political process, and contribute to the process of democratization. After all, Samuel Huntington famously argued we should only call a country a consolidated democracy when it has achieved two turnovers of power, because this indicates that both the ancien régime, and the party that displaces it, are willing to give up power. Of course, transfers of power don’t always have the desired effect. In Zambia, the victory of Frederick Chiluba and the Movement of Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) in 1991 ushered in a period of rapid corruption unprecedented in Zambian history. But in Benin, Ghana, and Mauritius changes of government have helped to encourage a range of actors to place their faith in the electoral process and to see democracy as the only game in town.

The paper has clear policy implications because it shows the importance of presidential term limits. Limits to the length of time presidents can hold office force ruling parties to run new presidential candidates and so create opportunities for opposition parties to make headway. There are therefore good reasons (beyond simply upholding the rules of the game) to promote constitutional term limits and to maintain pressure on ruling parties to respect them.

The paper can be accessed here.

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