Observers now commonly assert that multiparty elections are institutionalized as a standard feature of African politics (Posner & Young, 2007; Bratton, 2013; Cheeseman, 2018; Bleck & van de Walle, 2019). By this they mean that competitive electoral contests are the most commonplace procedure for choosing and changing political leaders across the continent. As a result of a wave of regime transitions in the 1990s, the vast majority of African countries abandoned one-party systems and military rule in favour of democratic constitutions that guarantee – at least on paper – civil and political rights, civilian control of the military, and legislative and judicial oversight of the executive branch of government. Almost all countries have introduced a regular cycle of elections (usually every five years), and many have placed constitutional limits on the number of terms that African presidents can serve (usually two). Today, encouraged by the African Union’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, all political leaders feel compelled to pay at least token respect to a new set of continent-wide electoral standards.
In short, elections are now embedded in the formal rules that govern politics on the continent. But the institutionalization of elections requires more than an international proclamation, an aspirational constitution, and a tightly drafted framework of statutes and regulations. It also requires political actors at all levels of the political system to grant value to open elections as the preferred method for selecting leaders and holding them accountable. In other words, politicians and citizens alike must make sincere commitments to hold elections dear and to offer vigorous protection if electoral procedures are ever threatened.
Yet there is already evidence that some African presidents are all too ready to abandon presidential term limits (Dulani, 2011) – a reversal, for example, that Togo’s Parliament ratified in May 2019. And political leaders are too often tempted to manipulate election processes and outcomes in order to retain power (Cheeseman & Klaas, 2018) – as Joseph Kabila demonstrated in the December 2018 general election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).1 Under these circumstances, much of the burden for protecting open and competitive elections falls to the ordinary citizens of Africa. The political commitments of the man and woman in the street represent the last line of defense should leaders take it upon themselves to violate widely accepted electoral norms.
Accordingly, several key questions arise: Do Africans actually support elections? Do they regard African elections as free and fair? Do high-quality contests boost the value that citizens attach to elections?
This Pan-Africa Profile offers affirmative answers to all these questions. Drawing from recent Afrobarometer survey data covering more than 30 countries across Africa’s main geographical regions, we find that Africans want open elections and, for the most part, think they are getting them. Importantly, popular support for elections is driven by the perceived freedom and fairness of the balloting process. Digging deeper, we find that the quality of elections – and thus popular support – is seen to hinge on whether elections bring about leadership alternation, which we define as a change not only of the top ruler but also of the ruling party. This “change effect” suggests that the political preferences of the general public are just as essential as formal political rules – if not more so – to the health of democracy in Africa.
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