An African paradox: voters can't tell difference between ruling and opposition parties - why that's a good thing

The opposition wins and disappointingly behaves just like the ruling party they were fighting against. There's a silver lining, believe it or not.

PIERRE Nkurunziza has won a controversial third term as president of Burundi, garnering 69.4% of the vote, the country’s electoral commission has announced.

It was always going to be a walkover for Nkurunziza, considering that his four main rivals, including Agathon Rwasa, boycotted the poll. But Rwasa’s name remained on the ballot paper, and he got 19% of the vote, although he wasn’t even running in the end.

International observers, including the US State Department and the European Union have said the elections were not free and fair; the government has harrassed opposition supporters over the past few months, and at least 70 people have been killed in protests since the president announced in April that he was running for a third term.

For its part, the African Union (AU) did not send observers to the election, an unprecedented move for the very accommodating continental body to take against a member state.

With elections often so sharply divided, you might think that the lines between the ruling party and opposition parties in Africa are clearly defined, and that’s why there would be such a deadly cleavage in Burundi. Well, yes, and no.

Data from Afrobarometer, a series of national public attitude surveys on democracy and governance in Africa, asked respondents in 12 African countries what they thought was the main difference between the ruling and opposition parties in their country.

African politics is usually stereotyped as bereft of ideology, as illiterate voters are crudely mobilised along ethnic, religious or sectarian lines.

But the answer that received the highest response (25%) in differentiating the ruling and opposition parites was “their economic and development policies”, suggesting that African voters are not as clueless as you might think.

However – and some would say, worryingly – the second highest response was “there is no difference.”

This would seem to confirm the view that African politics is shallow and cynical, with opposition leaders ostensibly agitating for better governance, but really only wanting to get a go at the feeding trough, to enjoy the fruits of power.

On the other hand, it could be a good thing - with voters unable to solidly distinguish between the ruling and opposition parties (possibly because the opposition disappointingly behaves just like the ruling party when they win), there is less of a chance to mobilise sharply along sectarian lines, and so what’s actually at stake in an election is lowered.

This seems to be confirmed when we look at the countries with the highest responses for “there is no difference”, or “I don’t know”.

They are: Lesotho, Mauritius, Benin, Cape Verde and Ghana – all of which have seen cycles of power transfer between ruling and opposition parties, and (apart from Lesotho) are all democracy star performers in Africa.

Mauritius’ case is striking. Known for being a stable and vibrant democracy, and consistently topping rankings in Africa for governance, rule of law and human rights, the island nation has one of the most peculiar political histories in Africa – if not the world.

Since independence, Mauritian politics has been dominated by just three or four people, fought over and swapped between the same people over and over again, for half a century.

In fact, nine out of the past 10 elections has been contest between a Ramgoolam, Jugnauth, Bérenger and Duval, with coalitions formed in any combination between the four.

It’s a strange case of musical chairs that journalist James Wan describes as “so repetitive it’s become spectacular, and so unpredictable it’s become oddly banal again,” Wan summarises the carousel in this stunning infographic.

Benin had long-serving president Matheiu Kérékou defeated by Nicephore Songlo in 1991, only for Songlo to be defeated in turn by Kérékou five years later.

And Ghana has had six consecutive credible and peaceful elections, with transfers of power between the National Democratic Congress now led by President John Mahama, and the National People’s Party, led by Nana Akufo-Addo.

The curious thing is that all these peaceful transfers happen without voters actually being able to substantively distinguish between the ruling and opposition parties – but they go out and vote governments in and out all the same.

It suggests there is value in the exercise of simply circulating power; change brings stability to the system.

This is at odds with those who argue that continuity brings stability, as is happening in Rwanda today with support being marshaled for President Paul Kagame’s third term. 

The need for his firm and steady hand, is one reason his supporters give for him ruling beyond 2017. But ultimately, his staying on denies Rwanda the chance to build credible institutions that can survive apart from his towering figure.

The top three countries that cite economic and development policies as being the main difference between the ruling and opposition parties are Malawi (40%), Botswana (34.2%) and Tanzania (33%). 

The latter two have something in common; a single party has dominated the political landscape throughout their independent history – the Bostwana Democratic Party and Chama Cha Mapinduzi respectively.

It means that opposition parties have to craft an identity distinct from the dominant party, therefore by necessity they have to articulate a clear policy position.

Some African countries say the main difference between the ruling party and opposition is the honesty and integrity of the leaders.

This is particularly the case in Cape Verde (21.5%), where another Afrobarometer survey found that three-quarters of the population had come to believe that leaders serve their own interests more than the public interest.

In Nigeria, too, a fifth of respondents cited honesty or integrity being the main difference between the groups of leaders – it is illuminative that the survey was carried out just before the March 2015 election, which saw former military strongman Muhammadu Buhari elected on a platform of integrity and zero tolerance to corruption.

Peering to read lists at the Togo election 2013 - a country that has comparatively high numbers of people saying the main difference between the ruling and opposition parties is the ethnicity of their leaders. (Photo/Flickr/ UNDP).

Tanzania also reports about a fifth (20.7%) of respondents saying that honesty is the main differentiator between ruling and opposition parties – although Tanzanians have never voted an opposition candidate into power.

This somewhat paradoxical attitude is explored in this working paper from the researchers, where the data reveals a very large (20-percentage point) gap in levels of public trust between ruling and opposition parties in Tanzania, suggesting that African publics “may willingly, if unconsciously, collude with their leaders to preserve the status quo.”

The paper finds evidence to support the claim that oppositions are weak because Africans place especially high social value on respect for their “father-leaders”; the deferential attitude toward power adds up to a sizeable disadvantage for opposition parties – despite the voters still regarding the opposition as more honest and having more integrity than the ruling party.

Still, when transfers of power do occur between parties, the trust gap reduces dramatically, the paper shows – and it has lasting positive effects in exercising change through the ballot, and hence the competitiveness of a political system and deepening of democracy.

And Kenya is a unique case, which has the highest percentage of respondents (12.7%) saying that the main difference is the ethnicity of party leaders or members, among countries surveyed.

The relatively low percentage for this response suggests that first, ethnicity per se is rarely a prominent fault line in African party politics, contrary to popular belief; and second, Kenya is one of the few countries in Africa whose history has made ethnicity – in and of itself – as a characteristic feature of the political system.

Similarly Nigeria also leads in the number of respondents who say religion is the major difference between the political parties - the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that lost power after 15 years in March polls provides for circulation of power between the mostly Muslim north and mostly Christian south - but at just 9.3%, it indicates religion rarely has salient political connotations in African politics.

What about Burundi where, according to official claims, three quarters of voters turned out to cast their ballot in this week’s election; and then some struggled to wash off the indelible ink so that they wouldn’t be targeted by opposition supporters who were boycotting the election?

According to the data, Burundians think that the biggest difference between the ruling party and the opposition is their “economic or development policies” (26%), “there is no difference” (18%) and “the experience of party leaders” (16.2%).

But with Nkurunziza back in power, it’s a small comfort that nearly a fifth of Burundians think there’s no difference anyway.

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