The state of African elections in 2018

General elections could take place this year in at least 12 African countries. Despite myriad social and political reforms, a smooth handover from one leader to a new one looks uncertain in some of the 12 countries, with sectarian conflict predicted in close to half them.

 

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a vast country the size of Western Europe and one of the biggest in Africa, in December of this year elections are scheduled for the presidency, members of the house of representatives and hundreds of local office holders.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres informed the Security Council in June 2018 that progress towards elections has been made in the DRC, including redistricting. However, Mr. Guterres expressed concerns about the “distrust amongst political actors over several key issues, including the potential use of voting machines.”

Elections were initially scheduled for November 2016 but were delayed because of logistical challenges and violence in parts of the country, including in the eastern Ituri and central Kasai regions.

“The delayed elections in the DR Congo present formidable challenges,” said Rushdi Nackerdien, regional director for Africa at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), last February. IFES is a nonprofit organization funded by the US government that supports emerging democracies in organizing elections.

Mr. Nackerdien informed the UN Security Council that “the public has low levels of trust in the electoral institution, but high expectations that the ballot box will be a mechanism for reform and stability.”

The circumstances surrounding the DRC polls illustrate the continued challenges to holding free and fair elections across the continent. Disputes are common and unrest has also occurred.

In February, Djibouti elected representatives to their national assembly, Guineans voted for their local representatives and Sierra Leoneans chose a new president and parliamentarians. Around the same time, Egypt held presidential elections. In May, Burundians voted to amend their constitution.

In July, Mali, Rwanda, Guinea-Bissau, DRC and Zimbabwe released their elections timetables, even though elections are likely to be delayed or cancelled in some of these countries.

Elections are scheduled for July in South Sudan, Mali, Togo and Zimbabwe, but it seems that only Mali and Zimbabwe will go to polls as scheduled.

South Sudan did not conduct general elections three years ago because of a political impasse among former allies in government. The impasse degenerated to a conflict that has killed thousands of people, displaced millions and provoked a severe humanitarian crisis.

Attempts at a peaceful resolution of the conflict, including one made by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional trade bloc, have had little effect. The government has indicated that it will go ahead with the elections regardless of whether the opposition parties “continue to stall the process.”

However, in the absence of a peace accord and the return of refugees, observers agree that it is unlikely any polls would be free and fair, raising the risk of further impasse and violence.

In Zimbabwe, “the elections [will] be credible, free, fair and transparent,” President Emmerson Mnangagwa promised, ahead of the July 2018 elections.

About 44% of Zimbabweans are concerned about the fairness of the electoral process, according to a poll by the Accra-based research network Afrobarometer, raising the risk of a political dispute. Fear that the elections will be marred by violence was heightened by an alleged assassination attempt on President Mnangagwa’s life in June.

In Mali, general elections at local and national levels have repeatedly been delayed. However, the presidential contest was held on 29 July 2018 against a backdrop of violence in parts of the country.

The central government has little control over vast swaths of the northern and central parts of the country, and implementation of a three-year-old peace accord aimed at ending conflict and restoring legal authority in these parts remains deadlocked. In this circumstance, only people living in government-controlled areas could safely vote.

In Madagascar, the prospect of parliamentarian and presidential elections in December 2018 is in doubt following a dispute over parliamentary approval of new electoral laws. In June the Constitutional Court ordered the country’s president, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, to appoint a new cabinet to resolve the impasse.

“The intent of this government is to organize an inclusive presidential election whose results have to be accepted by all,” Mr. Rajaonarimampianina said in a televised speech after appointing the new ministers. Yet even after the president has confirmed that the elections will take place in November, there is still uncertainty as parliamentarians squabble over electoral laws.

“There is nothing more urgent than the holding of peaceful, free, transparent and inclusive elections,” the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, said in June. He was referring specifically to the Congo, but his call is easily applicable to other countries.
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