The fourth in Afrobarometer’s special democracy summit series on Africa.
Originally published on the Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, where our regular Afrobarometer series explores Africans’ views on democracy, governance, quality of life, and other critical topics.
By Carolyn Logan and Fredline M'Cormack-Hale
Two recent electoral contests have renewed optimism in Africa about the transformative power of elections.
In August, challenger Hakainde Hichilema’s victory over Zambian President Edgar Lungu gave democracy advocates hope of reversing the country’s seeming slide into authoritarianism. And just last week, local government elections in South Africa energized opposition supporters and shocked the ruling African National Congress, which fell short of 50% of the vote for the first time since the country’s transition to majority rule.
Other elections stand in sharp contrast. In Uganda, violence and human rights abuses, as well as the weaponization of COVID-19 to justify restrictions on campaigning, marred the January 2021 election. President Yoweri Museveni succeeded in extending his 35-year tenure, once again crushing opposition hopes for a transition to a new generation of leadership.
Elections remain one of the central, but also most controversial, institutions of democracy. Findings from Afrobarometer’s 48,084 face-to-face interviews in 34 African countries in 2019-2021 show that Africans are committed to democratic elections — despite their doubts about election quality and whether the ballot box can bring about real change. But these surveys also reveal deep distinctions between countries that enjoy relatively clean elections and those that do not.
Not all Africans believe elections can bring change
As reported earlier in this series leading up to December’s Summit for Democracy, despite some weakening over the past decade, a commitment to elections as the best system for selecting leaders (75% across 34 countries) and to multiparty competition (63%) remain strong majority positions across Africa.
At the same time, citizens are skeptical of the capacity of elections to bring about change: Fully 50% say they do not think elections are effective in enabling voters “to remove from office leaders who do not do what the people want.” But the range in views is startling: Just 15% of Gabonese think elections are an effective means to bring about leadership change, compared to 85% in the Gambia. In surveys before their recent change-producing elections, just 56% of Zambians and 37% of South Africans were optimistic about the effectiveness of elections.
Africans attest to voting freedom
Optimism about the utility of elections in bringing about change supposes some confidence that elections are free and fair. But elections can go wrong — or right — in any number of ways. Key issues range from the fairness of campaign conditions to the safety and integrity of the voting environment and the transparency of the count on election day.
Given analysts’ concerns about election quality in Africa, it may come as a surprise that on average, Africans are quite optimistic about some aspects of their elections.
Perhaps most importantly, almost nine in 10 (87%) say they are free to vote as they choose (Figure 1). Sizeable majorities agree in all 34 countries surveyed, including 90% or more in 19 countries. Even among Angolans, who are the least confident about their freedom of vote choice, 66% say they are free to vote as they choose.
Large majorities also report positively on their country’s election environment. Asked about their most recent election, at least eight in 10 say they did not observe intimidation (87%) or interference (81%) by security forces and did not fear intimidation or violence (80%). Nearly as many report that bribes-for-votes were not offered (79%) and that people voting twice happened rarely or not at all (76%).
Figure 1: Positive assessments of election conditions | 34 African countries
With the exception of “Free to vote as you choose,” all questions reported here asked about conditions during the most recent national election. Source: Afrobarometer surveys, 2019-2021.
Solid majorities also express confidence in ballot secrecy (69%), in the fairness of the vote count (69%), and in the accuracy of results reported by their electoral commission (64%). But considering that 15% of Africans report that votes are “often” not counted fairly and 26% think the announced results did not match the actual vote, election quality still has important shortcomings to address.
In addition, Africans do not think candidates compete on a level playing field: Only 36% say the media covered all candidates fairly in the last election.
The averages hide some hard truths
These average scores obscure deep problems in some countries, however. For example, while only 3% of Namibians say votes are “often” not counted fairly, one-fourth or more of citizens cite inaccurate counts as a frequent problem in Zimbabwe (25%), Sudan (30%), and Gabon (35%).
Similarly, while only 2% of Guineans and 3% of Cabo Verdeans, Gambians, and Ghanaians say they are not free to vote as they choose, 30% of Zimbabweans and 29% of Gabonese say they lack this basic right.
Mirroring news reports about election irregularities, this pattern plays out across all of the indicators identified above. Findings for the four worst-performing countries — Gabon, Sudan, Cameroon, and Zimbabwe — are shown in Figure 2. In all four countries, across 10 indicators (excluding media fairness), an average of more than one in four citizens cite problems with their electoral system.
Figure 2: Negative assessments of election conditions: worst performers among surveyed countries
Opposition supporters have far less faith in election quality
Our findings suggest that supporters of opposition parties often bear the brunt of repressive electoral tactics. For example, as shown in Figure 3, opposition supporters in Zambia and Zimbabwe are more than four times as likely as ruling party adherents to think that election results are not reported accurately. In Gabon, even ruling party supporters have little faith in the quality of their elections, as 44% think results are inaccurate, but opposition supporters are far more negative (72%). We see similar differences with regard to personal experiences of intimidation and views about vote choice.
Figure 3: How voters in Gabon, Zambia, and Zimbabwe see election obstacles
If Zambia illustrates the varied story of election quality across Africa, its recent presidential contest also shows that the people’s will can prevail despite government repression and fears about accurate reporting, especially with a wide enough margin of victory and the help of vigilant observers.
Carolyn Logan (@carolynjlogan) is director of analysis for Afrobarometer and associate professor in the department of political science at Michigan State University.
Fredline M'Cormack-Hale (@fredlinemh) is associate professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University, and Afrobarometer co-principal investigator for the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) in Sierra Leone.