With nearly all the votes counted in South’s Africa’s Wednesday election, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) is set to win with just over 60% of the vote; still robust, even if slightly reduced from 2009.
Party faithful are already out in the streets in the townships doing victory jigs. It is a very common sight in African countries led by parties that came to power as liberation movements; the supporters always celebrating almost immediately after the polling stations close. They have reason to– their parties have won all the elections they stood in.
From South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and Uganda to Rwanda, and Ethiopia, no liberation movement government has ever lost power – and that is a period spanning nearly 40 years, from when Mozambique became independent in 1975.
Critics say it makes it easier that they organise the polls, or sometimes fiddle with them even when seemingly “independent” electoral commissions hold them. However, their 100% victory record, though suspect, still suggests there are other dynamics that favour former liberation parties against their opposition rivals.
The numbers speak for themselves: Before this week’s ballot, in the four elections South Africa has held since returning to multiparty democracy in 1994, the ANC has won all of them by more than 60%. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni, a former liberation movement leader, has hovered between 76% and nearly 60% since the first one-woman-one-vote election of his rule in 1996. His party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) has not dipped below 64% in the parliamentary seats it has won.
Rwanda, where the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels took power in 1994, ending the genocide in which nearly one million people were killed, had its first multiparty elections in 2003. It won 73.78% of the vote, and President Paul Kagame snagged 95.1%, and kept his winning percentage in the 90s again in 2010.
Given the world view of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe as an autocrat, it is ironical that it is only in his country, in which a former liberation movement coalition, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) came close to losing power at an election, in 2008 losing parliament to the opposition. Long used to winning at least 80%, in those polls ZANU-PF lost its parliamentary majority, and Mugabe trailed in the first round of the presidential vote. He won it in the second round, after Opposition MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew, citing malpractices.
Contradictory as that might seem - Zimbabwe can claim to be the most “democratic” of the Liberation Club.
That said, the stalemate that followed was resolved when a fractious coalition government was cobbled together between ZANU-PF and the MDC. By the elections of 2013, Zimbabwe’s outlier status was over. ZANU-PF won the old way – with 76.1% of the seats in Parliament.
Likewise in Namibia, where the ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), again a liberation movement, won by 57.33% in the pre-independence elections of 1989 its vote share edged up dramatically in subsequently elections. It won in 1994, 1999, 2004, and 2009, scoring more than 70% in each of the polls.
The People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), which came to power in 1975, had a dip in fortunes in the 1992 election – it won with 53.74%. It has not allowed the count to go under 80% in all the elections thereafter.
The Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), led by Meles Zenawi, allied with the Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF) defeated the military junta regime in Addis Ababa in 1991 after a long revolutionary war. Amid cries of election theft, the TPLF, which is now the lead party in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic ruling coalition (EPRD), went about winning in 1995 with 82%. It hasn’t looked back.
It is telling that when the EPRD won with 62.65% in 2005, it was considered a “loss” of some kind, and the country was plunged into violence. It corrected that “mistake” in 2010, winning Parliament by the more familiar margin of 91.2%.
In Mozambique, the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) victory margins seesaws between the believable and suspect quite frequently - 1999 – 48.54%; 2004 – 62.03%, 2009 – 74.66%. In Angola, the MPLA goes through the rituals of elections, and in Eritrea the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), renamed People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) in 1994, does not bother to even go through the motions. It doesn’t hold competitive elections.
There are two distinct patterns. In the early and pre-independence elections, where the liberation movements are not yet in government so can’t appoint the election commissioners, and also have the power to extend their reach and patronage, they have generally won “democratic margins” of below 50%.
Scholars of African politics have argued that, especially for the older liberation parties like the ANC, Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF or Uganda’s National Resistance Movement (NRM), their characters are forged in the bush, and become hardy in ways that opposition parties born of middle class outrage in urban areas will rarely be.
Secondly, that they have to master extraordinary mobilisation skills in the bush to win wars, and they draw on those skills in elections. Rivals without that background, often find themselves out-organised and able to make an impression only in a few urban areas. Thus while a party that has its roots in a military regime, like Ghana’s People’s National Party (PNP) that was formed by Flt Lt (now retired) Jerry Rawlings, could lose power in elections, it is highly unlikely to happen to EPRD in Ethiopia (taking power in a coup is a no brainer, compared to fighting a 10-year guerrilla war).
Similarly, while the revolutionaries of the Arab Spring in countries like Egypt, though they were able to oust long-ruling military dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, they were subsequently swept aside by the conservative and better organised Muslim Brotherhood. They then saw their hopes of democracy buried when the military returned to power, deposing the Brotherhood’s President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
However, after a marginal to significant drop-off in either the electoral fortunes of the parties or their leaders in the early 2000s, they are enjoying resurgence as witnessed in Uganda in 2012 and Zimbabwe and Uganda. On this form, it seems they are not about to lose. When they do, it will be one of the big surprises of African politics, and it looks that that is more likely to happen in southern Africa, than in the East.
Those who parachute into these countries wielding ready-made political “solutions” would do well to pause and consider that their understanding of them is superficial, although their hearts might be in the right place.
•Research and additional reporting by Samantha Spooner