By a coincidence of delayed timetables, neighbouring West African countries Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire are likely to go to the polls on consecutive Sundays, starting in Cote d’Ivoire on the 31st. Here, the elections are five years late. Neither Laurent Gbagbo, the incumbent president, nor the rebel force in the north have, up to now, felt any incentive, nor sufficient pressure, to shift ground and make the elections possible. All sides have hidden behind the pretext of technical difficulties.
In Guinea, after a relatively successful first round, the fight for power between the two remaining presidential candidates, Alpha Condé and Cellou Diallo, appears to leave little room for compromise. With the run-off delayed, fears of manipulation abound, and politicized ethnic tensions have led to clashes between party supporters, and between party supporters and the security forces. Given the history of both countries, each having known only three presidents in 50 years, there are good grounds for contestants to believe that if they lose they, and perhaps their whole community, may be excluded from power for a generation.
In both these countries, delays have raised the spectre of civil conflict, but so has the prospect of finally holding the polls. Why is this so? The feverish atmosphere flows partly from people’s hopes, the belief that democracy can really work this time and the desire to be vigilant against spoilers. But the answer also lies at elite level – in countries where economic opportunity is overwhelmingly dependent on official office, the stakes are simply too high. Power brings a whole series of privileges which leaders of opposition parties see none of. To this is added the opportunities for patronage, and in some cases the chance to avoid prison.
As well as reflecting a lack of economic opportunities outside politics, this centralizing tendency is both a product and a cause of institutional weakness. Presidents whose political base is built on handing out largesse have no incentive to build the institutions – especially strong parliaments and independent judiciaries – that check their own power and may give others a greater stake in the system. In many cases centralisation can be traced back to the nation building era of the 1960s, or even the struggle against colonialism before that, when division meant defeat. But it is clearly highly damaging when it comes to modern independent states.
A typical response to the centralizing phenomena is a national unity government, formalizing a wider distribution of largesse. Such governments can play a key role at critical points in fragile countries. But in the longer term they do not address the underlying dynamic. They undermine the principle that an opposition should challenge government policy. And with government composition often at the discretion of the president, or with the president retaining strong powers over finance and appointments, they actually do little to address the incentives structure. The name of the game is still to get to the top, at all costs.
For the first three decades of independence, few West African countries bothered with elections at all. One result was that long standing opponents began to see their own exclusion from power as part and parcel of authoritarian government. Both Alpha Conde and Laurent Gbagbo served prison terms as their historic rivals enjoyed the comforts of office. Democracy activists of the 1990s knew that limiting presidents to two mandates is important, offering hope to opponents, and a sense that power would rotate. Many incumbents have since rowed back on these provisions or anointed loyal successors.
So what can be done? Delaying elections often seems the right approach to defuse a tense situation. But over time problems often get worse, and at some point the question of legitimacy of leadership has to be tackled. Technical flaws in elections are often symptoms of divided politics, but where improvements can be made they are important. Little by little they can reduce the scope for trouble making. They don’t, however, change the incentive structures for incumbents and opponents, nor do they prevent politicians from contesting outcomes on the street, especially if the results are close.
One way to shift those incentives would be to lesson the spoils of office while increasing the costs of rigging elections. Those international actors and donors with influence, which differs in each country, could be much bolder in pushing for the decentralization of power and resources, in particular vesting more authority in parliaments to determine spending and protecting the judiciary from executive meddling. This would not only weaken overly powerful executives, but would also give opposition parties a real role and more reason to accept their loss at the polls.
At the same time, presidents who fix elections or hang onto power against the popular will should face diplomatic isolation, both in and outside the region. The ECOWAS Supplemental Protocol for Democracy and Good Governance and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights, which almost all West African states have ratified, formally bind their signatories to holding genuine elections. ECOWAS and the international community should be much more serious about sanctioning leaders who fail to meet these international commitments. None of this will happen overnight, of course, but sending clear messages now to those who are in power, or who seek to be, would be a step in the right direction.
Richard Atwood is Director of Research and Operations and an elections specialist
Richard Moncrieff is Director of the West Africa Program