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Africa Faces Year of "Messy" Elections

Published on Thursday 13th January 2011 Africa Faces Year of "Messy" Elections

At the start of one of Africa’s busiest political seasons – more than 17 elections are due this year – the deepening crisis in Côte d’Ivoire sends a brutal reminder of the limits of electoral politics.

The idea that free-ish multiparty elections supervised by the United Nations were going to resolve the fissures between the north and south of the country owed more to hope than to reality on the ground.

Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos is one of the staunchest supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, along with sundry Israeli and Russian officials. His election-winning rival, Alassane Dramane Ouattara, has corralled a wide range of support, discreetly helped by French and United States’ diplomats, along with the good offices of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Initially, some read the reactions as a positive change in the region’s political style. Within hours of the Ivorian Conseil Constitutionnel (led by Gbagbo’s allies) overturning the results issued by the Commission Electorale Indépendante (CEI, dominated by oppositionists), Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan convened an emergency meeting of West African heads of state at Abuja airport to agree a strategy.

Of the seven leaders present, four had credible electoral mandates: Ghana’s John Atta Mills, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Mali’s Amani Toumani Touré and Senegal’s Abdoulaye Wade. Two – Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré and Togo’s Faure Gnassingbé – had shot their way to power; Jonathan is the beneficiary of a fraudulent election and the demise of his predecessor.

Nevertheless, the assembled leaders insisted that democracy was at stake and that Gbagbo respect the results issued by the CEI and step down for his rival Ouattara. Such speedy action contrasted tellingly with the European Union’s laggardly response to Alexander Lukashenko’s violent election fraud in Belarus and indeed Asia’s mute response to General Than Shwe’s latest electoral putsch in Myanmar.

As impressive as the sense of urgency was, the diplomatic strategy fell short. After an unsuccessful mission to Abidjan, the Economic Community of West African States leaders gave Gbagbo an ultimatum: stand down or face ‘legitimate force’. Whatever Gbagbo’s view, nothing is as likely to galvanise Ivorian opinion in his favour as the threat of an Ecowas military invasion.

Doubtless, sanctions will hit Côte d’Ivoire hard but its economy is much stronger than that of Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has held on regardless. Mugabe and Andry Rajoelina of Madagascar must be watching Gbagbo’s tactics closely in the lead up to their own electoral battles.

Others with less at stake are looking for alternatives to this kind of electoral showdown; Côte d’Ivoire’s crisis has prompted more condemnation of elaborate power-sharing deals.

As the survey of coming elections in this edition of Africa Confidential shows, most will range from widespread fraud to messy multiparty compromise. Perhaps only Liberia’s elections and the independence referendum in Sudan are likely to be heralded as an accurate reflection of the popular view. The stand-offs in Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya and Zimbabwe defy easy resolution and demand cooler heads.

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