Reconsidering African Elections
- Carolien van HamCarolien van HamSchool of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales
- and Staffan LindbergStaffan LindbergDepartment of Political Science, University of Gothenburg
The quality of elections in Africa demonstrates considerable progress from the early attempts in the 1950s and 1960s to the increasingly democratic era following the end of the Cold War. In terms of scope, 46 of 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa now select the most powerful public offices (i.e., the executive and/or legislature) via elections, and reserved power domains have become relatively uncommon. In terms of choice, single-party elections, once so common across Africa, have now all but vanished from the continent. However, the integrity of elections still varies widely, ranging from elections with serious irregularities to elections that are fully free and fair. Even so, considerable progress is apparent over the last three decades. A full 47% of countries in sub-Saharan Africa now hold elections that are free and fair or only involve minor irregularities. Equally important, electoral interruptions in the form of coup d’état, civil war, or annulment of elections have become very rare.
Africa is also a continent where the contemporary trend of elections generating broader democratization is particularly palpable. By providing opportunities for citizens to remove incumbents from office and generating expansion of civil liberties after elections are over, stimulating citizens and other actors to increase pressure for more democratic freedoms, elections seem on average to have been conducive to democratic developments in Africa. Elections also increasingly lead to turnovers, especially elections of high electoral integrity, where on average 34% are associated with alternations in power. Taking a long-term view on developments from 1960 until 2017, African elections have seen an impressive increase in quality over time, and provide a much more significant contribution to democratization in sub-Saharan Africa than is often acknowledged in the literature.