Poll weekend: Africans like democracy but hate its elections. Why so few of them bother to vote

Since the return to multiparty politics in Africa, you might expect deepening democratic consolidation as the years go by. That hasn't been the case.

THIS past weekend was an election bonanza, with Tanzania, Ivory Coast and the Republic of Congo all conducting elections on Sunday.

Tanzania’s ruling party is already claiming two-thirds of parliamentary seats; Denis Sassou-Nguesso is calling victory in his attempt to extend his rule to a de facto presidency-for-life. In Ivory Coast, Alassane Ouattara can go ahead and change into his pyjamas, and pour himself another cold drink as he seems set for a second term.

But it appears that increasingly, African voters are voting by refusing to vote, a passive-aggressive refusal to legitimise quasi democracies and semi-authoritarian regimes, or where they see that their vote will not really count because the outcome is largely a foregone conclusion.

Reports from Congo indicate that voters heeded the opposition’s call to boycott the constitutional referendum; from most reports voters  largely stayed at home; latest estimates put the turnout at just 10%.

Witnesses reportedly said that at locations in Brazzaville, police were the only people milling about at polling stations, idly guarding the empty ballot boxes; there were even whispers that citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo were paid to cross the Congo river – which separates the cities of Brazzaville and Kinshasa – and vote.

Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, secretary-general of the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS), one of the main opposition parties, called the low turnout a “defeat for the government.”

A boycott  also played out in parts of Ivory Coast, called by a faction of the Ivoirian Popular Front (FPI), the party of former president Laurent Gbagbo, but turnout was also low because Ouattara was widely tipped to win by a landslide and not many people would have seen the need to go out and vote.

Wave of change
Most African countries have already had three or more elections in the multiparty era. For most, the first poll – nearly all held in the early 1990s when a wave of democratic change swept the continent – turnout was 65% and higher, but has been dropping since with a few exceptions, data from the  Voter Turnout Database, a collation of election data from around the world compiled by the Institute for Democracy and Election Assistance (IDEA), shows.

In Tanzania, the hotly contested 1995 election had a turnout of 76%, but has dropped steadily over the past two decades: it was 72% in 2005, and just 43% five years ago. This year’s turnout is yet to be called, but might rise slightly because it was billed as the most hotly election in 20 years, although voters had to choose between the lesser of two evils, as one Tweet described it:

It was probably the same case in the much-lauded Nigerian election this year, where voters had to choose between an unpopular incumbent and a former military dictator – many chose neither and stayed at home, so turnout was just just 43%, a drop from 53% five years ago, and a high of 69% in 2003.

Uganda too, has seen its turnout drop from 72% in 1996, to 70% five years later; in 2006, when the country returned to multiparty politics – and removal of term limits – 69% of voters turned up, and the last poll, in 2011, saw it drop even further to 59%.

In Zambia, this year’s election that brought Edgar Lungu to power, following Michael Sata’s death in office last year, had a turnout of just 32%. One could argue that the turnout was low because it was an “irregular” election, coming after the death of a sitting president, so the stakes were lower – voters were all right with Lungu extending the rule of the governing Patriotic Front (PF) party, but just didn’t care enough about it to go out and vote to make sure this happened.

But even in the 1991 election, the first in the multiparty era, and one of the few in Africa that dislodged a “founding father” president – Kenneth Kaunda – from power, turnout was only 44%.

Parliamentary elections in Africa even bring out a lower turnout than presidential ones, particularly if the two are not held on the same day.  In the just-concluded Egyptian elections, turnout was estimated in the region of 22%, a stunning drop from the 62% recorded in the last parliamentary election in 2012 that came in wake of the Arab Spring protests that re-energised democratic expression in the region.

But before that, in Mubarak-era 2005 and 2010, just 27% of Egyptian voters bothered to leave their houses and vote for their member of parliament. The weather was blamed for a low turnout in this year’s May’s poll:

In the two decades since the return to multiparty politics in Africa, you might expect democratic consolidation and more civic participation - in the form of voting -  as the years go by.

But this hasn’t been the case. The increasing trend of “apathy” around the continent might be explained as a passive-aggressive protest vote, particularly if each successive election brings little real change, and the exercise of voting starts to become an exercise in futility.

This is particularly the case as a resurgent streak of authoritarianism quietly creeps over the continent, evidenced by a clutch of third-term intrigues playing out in a clutch of countries, including Sassou’s Congo and neighbouring DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

Data from Afrobarometer, a series of national public attitude surveys on democracy, suggested increasing levels of education  decreases political participation if the regime is a quasi-democracy or electoral autocracy, the kind that holds regular elections but without a chance of any real impact on entrenched interests.

In electoral autocracies, elections are actually not designed to enable citizen voice or really measure popular preferences; instead, authoritarian regimes compel participation “as a demonstration of allegiance”, and serve to legitimise incumbents.

Under such conditions, where your vote is likely to be futile (but you will be counted as part of the voter turnout), better-educated citizens choose to disengage from politics, as participating will give the exercise a veneer of legitimacy.

So as Africa gets more educated and prosperous, and political interests get more entrenched, we are likely to see fewer and fewer people bothering to get out of their houses and stand in a queue to vote.

But there are many exceptions to this, and all sorts of things can turn up and bring people out of their homes. 

In Kenya’s 2013 election, the threat of the International Criminal Court (ICC) over Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto whipped up the country’s political mood – both for and against – so much that voter turnout was a record 85%, far more than the 57% in historic 2002 election that booted long ruling independence-era party KANU from power.

And in Rwanda, which by all measures is an illiberal democracy, voter turnout was 96% in 2003, and 97% in 2010, even if Paul Kagame had no real opposition, and both times was virtually elected unopposed.

It’s the same case in Ethiopia, where voter runout has been in the 90th percentile for the past 15 years, even though opposition politics is stifled far underground.

It’s a stunning demonstration of compliance in both countries, where it’s not enough that opposition parties are not allowed to operate freely, people still get out and vote in what is obviously a foregone conclusion – and are not even passive-aggressive in expressing any disapproval they might have, as in the rest of Africa.

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