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African opposition parties have their share of the blame

In this videoclip, Issaka Souaré of the Institute for Security Studies speaks to Polity's Amy Witherden on African opposition politics and why incumbent governments cannot be solely blamed for a lack of change in leadership. Camerawork and editing: Darlene Creamer.

29th October 2009


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In this videoclip, Issaka Souaré of the Institute for Security Studies speaks to Polity's Amy Witherden on African opposition politics and why incumbent governments cannot be solely blamed for a lack of change in leadership.



Below is the original opinion column on which this interview was based.

The end of the Cold War led to or coincided with the establishment or re-introduction of multiparty political systems across Africa. In the early 1990s, almost all the African countries adopted new constitutions that provided for democracy, multiparty and the holding of competitive elections at regular intervals. Only a few countries (for example Botswana, the Gambia, Mauritius, and Senegal) had this system before 1990, and Libya is almost the only African country with no multiparty system today.


While the regular change of leadership or ruling party is not a condition for democracy, it is nevertheless a desirable characteristic of the democratic system. Viewed in light of this observation, one could argue that the result of the post-Cold War political liberalisation in Africa has been a mixed one. True, leadership has changed hands in various African countries. But the majority of these changes have been between leaders of the same political party. Since 1990, there have been more than 40 peaceful (post-election) leadership changes on the continent. But in only 16 instances in 13 countries has the opposition benefited from this. This excludes ‘opposition' wins after transitional governments whose members were not allowed to stand for elections. For in this case, the victorious party was not an opposition one but just a political party among others.

Unless this is seen as normal - but most people do not see it as such - one has to ask the ‘why' question that seeks to fathom this state of affairs. To most observers of African politics and to almost all opposition leaders, the answer is simple: ruling parties rig elections.

There can be no denying the fact that in the yet-to-be consolidated democratic systems of Africa, most ruling regimes resort or try resort to fraud in order to stay in power. They engage in gerrymandering of electoral constituencies to favour their party. They prepare the voters roll to their liking and intimidate the opposition during electoral campaign, while controlling State-owned media. They resurrect the dead and give a vaccine to the kids to reach voting age on election day, while stuffing the polling boxes and cooking the results before they are served by a State-controlled electoral commission.

All this they do to the detriment of the opposition and this is to be condemned. But are the opposition always victims they ritually purport to be? If so, what explains opposition wins in 16 instances, as noted above?

Writing in 1951 in his seminal book on Political Parties, the French sociologist and political scientist, Maurice Duverger, opined that regime change between two parties is almost impossible unless the political system is a two-party one. Other analysts have added the ‘bipolarised' system as an alternative to the two-party one. The two-party system referred to here is not a de jure one, but a system in which two political parties, amongst others, effectively control more than 80% of seats/votes in the country on a more or less equal basis in consecutive elections. The bipolarised one is a situation where the myriad opposition parties come together to form a coalition against the ruling regime to create an ad hoc two-party system. This is not to argue that once the political system fits one of these two categories, the opposition will automatically win. It simply means that meeting one of these two conditions is necessary but not sufficient to effect opposition win.

To substantiate this remark in the African context, let's now take a cursory look at the abovementioned 16 opposition wins and compare this to some opposition loses in which they cried foul. Of the 16 instances, five were generally the result of a coherent opposition coalition; and five others occurred in two-party or bipolarised systems. The first coalition win arguably happened in Zambia in October 1991. In this historic poll, almost all opposition parties stood behind Frederick Chiluba's Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) against the incumbent Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independent Party (UNID). If it was not a coalition, then it was a de facto two-party system, for they were the two parties that competed for both the presidential and legislative elections that were held on the same day. The other opposition coalition wins happened in Niger in March 1993, in Burundi in June 1993, in Senegal in March 2000, and in Kenya in December 2002.

The opposition candidates have won twice in both Cape Verde (1991 and 2001) and Ghana (2000 and 2008), and once in Sierra Leone (2007). But there is an effective two-party system in all these three countries, at least since 1990. In Cape Verde, power alternates and is more or less equally shared between the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV) and the Movement for Democracy (MpD). In Ghana, it is between the National Democratic Congress (NDC) and the New Patriotic Party (NPP), while the All People's Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) have dominated the political scene in Freetown since the country regained independence from Britain in 1961.

The remaining six cases happened after transitional arrangements in which the former one-party ruling regime had been greatly weakened and discredited. This is what explains, to a large extent, the electoral victory of Pascal Lissouba's Pan-African Union for Social Democracy (UPADS) in the Republic of Congo in August 1992; Albert Zafy's in Madagascar in February 1993; Ange-Félix Patassé's in the Central African Republic in September 1993; Bakili Muluzi's in Malawi in May 1994; and Coumba Yala's in Guinea-Bissau in January 2000. And in all these cases, save the Malawian one, the opposition victory only came at the second round when other parties coalesced behind the main opposition candidate, which then brings them to the first category. Didier Ratsiraka's return to power in 1996, in Madagascar, is the sixth and the only exceptional case of the data. The conclusion is almost clear and self-explanatory.

Let's now look at some recent opposition losses. In the just concluded presidential election in Gabon (August 30, 2009), the candidate of the ruling party, Aly Bongo, was declared winner with 41,7% of the votes, against 25% for each of his two closest rivals, who ran as independent candidates. With a plurality voting system based on simple majority (First-Past-The-Post), a coalition between these two individuals would have landed them victory with 50% of the vote, 8% clear of the share of Bongo.

Likewise, in the December 2001, presidential elections in Zambia, Levy Mwanawassa carried the flag of the ruling MMD, against some ten opposition candidates. The latter failed to unite behind the most serious challenger among them - United Party for National Development's (UPND's) Anderson Mazoka. As a result, Mwanawassa won with a mere 29,15%, against 27,20% for Mazoka. Yet, the third candidate bagged 13,1%; the fourth one 10,12% and the fifth one garnered 8,9% of the votes. Clearly, the coalition of any of these candidates with Mazoka would have given him more than the 1,96% that he needed to beat MMD's candidate.

Beyond these figures, which are retrospective, formidable opposition coalitions can have a psychological effect that dissuades the ruling regime from rigging and eventually land them victory. The reason for the low turnout in most African elections in recent times is because many people do not want to vote for the ruling party yet do not want to ‘waste' their vote on a fragmented opposition that does not stand any realistic chance of winning. Opposition coalition building can therefore restore the hope of such voters in the process and persuade them to vote. Seeing such popular support for the opposition, the ill-intentioned ruling regime may then be discouraged from rigging.

The modest record of regime change on the continent is therefore not the fault of ruling parties alone. The opposition has its share of responsibility for failing to unite. This failure can sometimes be explained by the internal dynamics in opposition parties. Most African opposition leaders are ‘macro democrats' and micro autocrats'; that is leaders that call for democracy at the national level while they do not practice the same within their parties. The reason for this is that they form parties to seek power for themselves rather than to contribute to the democratic process in the country. If their leadership of the opposition coalition were not assured, they would rather go it alone even if they know that neither they nor another leader would win in a solo act.

Written by: Issaka K Souaré, senior researcher, African Security Analysis Programme, ISS Pretoria Office


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