John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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African Elections Merely “a False Veneer of Legitimacy?”

by John Campbell
November 12, 2012

Woman with shows off her inked finger after casting her vote during the national elections in the capital Luanda, Angola 31/08/2012. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Courtesy Reuters)


The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) has rolled out a new report by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, “Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide.” Vidar Helgesen, IDEA’s Secretary General, said that the report concludes that most elections provide only a “false veneer of legitimacy” for autocratic incumbents. The report includes thoughtful recommendations by which the international community can better support elections.

The Global Commission is highly distinguished. Its chair is former UN secretary general Kofi Annan. Other members include former Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo and Louise Arbour, president of the International Crisis Group.

The report is world-wide in scope, but it is particularly appropriate to Africa. Africa Union Commissioner for Political Affairs, Aisha Abdulahi in welcoming the report said that “elections can undermine democracy, worsen divisions, trigger conflicts and fail to deliver improvements in the lives of people.” She went on to say that “our governments don’t respect the rule of law; and the judiciary is not always independent or neutral, leading to further conflict.”

Elections lacking credibility have led to violence in a host of African countries, including Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Nigeria. In other places–Senegal and Zambia–credible elections do advance democracy. The danger for outside observers is to see elections as always a step forward when too often they increase divisions.

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