Losers in Africa’s presidential elections need to be more strategic

A new strategy by opposition party leaders in Africa who have lost elections is emerging. They contest the results and demand that fresh elections are held or launch a process of power sharing with the losing parties. But their successes have been limited and their actions tend to provoke democratic reversals.

A look at a few recent polls shows this trend clearly.

In an interview on a French television channel, Martin Fayulu, a presidential candidate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) elections, which took place on December 30 2018, expressed his readiness to call on the people of the DRC to take part in an uprising after Felix Tshisekedi emerged as the winner.

The election of Tshisekedi came as a surprise to most observers, who anticipated a landslide win for the ruling coalition, the Front Commun pour le Congo (FCC).

The results announced by the electoral commission showed that Tshisekedi, of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party, won the elections with 38.57% of the vote, Fayulu, of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development party, was the runner-up (34.80%) and Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, the candidate for the FCC, came in third place (23.80%).

The Constitutional Court confirmed Tshisekedi’s victory on January 20.

Conflicting reports from the Council of the Catholic Church cast doubt on the results announced by the electoral commission, and seemed to point to a victory for Fayulu with 68% of the vote. This endorsement emboldened Fayulu. He embarked on a campaign requesting the electoral commission to either recount the votes or to annul the elections.

Fayulu’s actions are similar to those of opposition leaders in other elections in Africa. For example, the 2017 elections in Kenya saw Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory challenged by his rival Raila Odinga.

Quite unexpectedly, the Supreme Court decided to annul the results after claims of a rigged and irregular electoral process, and a repeat election was duly scheduled for 60 days later. But Odinga called for a boycott of the elections and refused to participate, accusing the electoral commission of not being impartial.

Odinga called for protests and received strong support in his stronghold of Kisumu. At one moment, the protests threatened to divide Kenya into ethnic enclaves and to increase instability, which affected the economy.

Despite the boycott and the protests, Odinga did not ascend to the presidency.

The second example is that of the elections in Zimbabwe. In July last year, the spokesperson for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) announced, ahead of the electoral commission, that the opposition candidate, Nelson Chamisa, was the uncontested winner.

When the electoral commission announced that Emmerson Mnangagwa had won the elections the streets of Harare were flooded with protesters, including MDC supporters, who denounced the rigging of the vote. Several protesters were killed in clashes with the police.

Chamisa too did not change the course of events to become president.

READ MORE: Zimbabwe’s opposition copies the Kenyan playbook

These few examples show a recurring pattern and tendency for candidates either to announce their own results ahead of the electoral commission or to challenge the outcome. These actions can have far-reaching consequences that affect security and disrupt social life.

Another problem concerns the focus on the presidential seat and the neglect of other power levers such as the control of Parliament and local administration at provincial and district levels.

Opposition parties do not make enough effort to secure a significant number of seats in Parliament to give them legislative power. As a result, the ruling or winning parties find themselves in a position where they control both the executive and legislative branches of power. This has a negative effect because it tends to cause democratic reversals, leading to the emergence of autocratic systems in which only one party dominates and often tries to close down the political space further. Such dynamics undermine the democratic foundations of societies in Africa.

The emphasis on problems created by the electoral challenges does not mean the contesting parties have no legitimate reason to take such actions. The idea is rather to push contesting parties to strategise wisely and to evaluate along the way what results they can achieve. If there is no possibility of reversing the course of the post-election context, then new measures need to be taken so that the contesting party is in a better position to still defend its interests and those of the country. Such measures should also be taken where a repositioning for a future electoral battle remains possible.

For the past two decades, the DRC has been plagued by violence and instability, especially in the eastern provinces. A proliferation of armed groups has prevented any genuine progress in terms of stability and economic recovery.

The Congolese population had been waiting for Joseph Kabila to step down. The election of Tshisekedi as the new president reignited hopes for renewed peace-building processes among the Congolese in the war-affected regions.

The fear of renewed instability, with spillover effects into neighbouring countries, has pushed regional power brokers to endorse the choice of Tshisekedi despite persisting doubts about the regularity of the elections and claims of a secret deal struck between the outgoing president Kabila and the incoming Tshisekedi.

The following questions arise: What options are left for Fayulu? What results can he achieve through his campaign for the truth of the ballot box? Will his call for a popular uprising help to solve the myriad problems the country is facing? Should he accept the defeat he considers unjustified? Fayulu needs to decide whether he can continue with his campaign or adopt a new strategy ahead of elections in 2023.

The current DRC electoral contestation and other similar cases on the continent show how democratic consolidation remains elusive in several African countries. In fact, democratic reversals seem to be on the increase. The main reason for this is that most politicians are not conviction democrats. This problem also points to the need for the political elite in Africa to unlearn practices that are at odds with democracy and are against the best interests of the citizens of their respective nations.

Patrick Hajayandi is a senior project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town

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Patrick Hajayandi
Patrick Hajayandi
Patrick Hajayandi is a senior project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.

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