Why definition of 'free and fair politics' is sometimes hazy

Saturday February 4 2017

People in Banjul, The Gambia celebrate the inauguration of Adama Barrow as the country's president on January 19, 2017. PHOTO | AFP

People in Banjul, The Gambia celebrate the inauguration of Adama Barrow as the country's president on January 19, 2017. PHOTO | AFP 

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Most countries in Africa are not fully democratic or completely authoritarian. Instead, they fall somewhere in between these two extremes, holding multiparty elections but without a level political playing field. Over the last two decades, media commentators have come up with a new vocabulary to describe these political systems – semi-democratic, electoral-authoritarian, competitive-authoritarian, counterfeit democracies – and so on.

While the terms used to describe these countries have varied over the years, the key paradox they describe has not: these are states in which opposition parties may criticise the government and participate in elections, but in which the government hardly ever loses. Indeed, many of the countries that fall in this category have never had a transfer of power.

So why have these countries developed some key democratic practices but not others? What are the barriers that have made it so hard for opposition parties to achieve electoral breakthroughs? And what does this mean for the elections that are due to be held in 2017 and early 2018 in the “semi democracies” of Kenya, Liberia and Somalia?


With the exception of Eritrea, all major sub-Saharan African states hold elections of some kind to determine their government. However, the quality of these elections varies dramatically. In some cases, like Cape Verde and Mauritius, the polls are largely free and fair, and the opposition party is allowed to win even closely contested elections.

In others, opposition parties are denied victory even when it looks like they have won the most votes. This was the case most recently in Gambia, until Ecowas forces intervened, and it has also been true in Zimbabwe. In these kinds of contexts, governments are committed to the spectacle of democracy, but not the reality. Elections, opposition, and dissent are tolerated so long as they do not threaten to challenge the interests of the ruling elite. When they do, the government uses its influence over the electoral commission, police, security forces, and the media to re-assert control.

In some cases, this kind of interference can be subtle, as when the president’s press officer calls the editor of a national newspaper to pressure him to kill a story. In other cases, it can be more aggressive and threatening, such as the frequent arrest of opposition leaders in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

The constraints on opposition parties in these kinds of states thus reflects two different factors – a lack of constitutional protection for key democratic institutions, and a lack of willingness to share power.

Some academics describe these systems as “semi-democracies” to capture this complex mix, but others suggest this title is too optimistic because it emphasises their democratic aspects. Instead, they prefer to use the term “electoral authoritarian”, on the basis that it highlights the frequently repressive nature of these governments.


It is important to recognise that not all of the advantages enjoyed by ruling parties are illegitimate. Most presidents enjoy greater media attention than opposition leaders because they make important decisions, and governments typically find it easier to raise election funding from businesses because they are closer to power – at least in the short run. Ruling parties in Africa also have a third advantage: they tend to be much more trusted than their opposition counterparts. In most African states covered by the Afrobarometer survey of public opinion, the presidency is found to be the most trusted political institution, and respondents are sceptical about the political opposition. Surprisingly, this is even true of countries in which opposition leaders perform strongly in elections. In other words, even where the government is less popular, citizens seem to associate opposition parties with causing divisions and instability.

Although these advantages give governments a significant head start when it comes to elections, they also characterise politics in many democratic states. Perhaps more significantly, they do not break any laws, or represent an abuse of government power to deliberately disadvantage specific parties. This is very different to the kinds of things that governments in electoral-authoritarian states sometimes do to retain control, which often includes taking steps that breach the rule of law For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the main challengers to President Joseph Kabila, Moise Katumbi, the former Governor of Katanga, was forced into exile after he was charged and later convicted of illegally selling property. Similarly, in Cote d’Ivoire a succession of leaders neutered the challenge of Alassane Ouattara by using legislation to ban him for contesting the presidency, until he was finally allowed to run in 2010. Even then, Ouattara’s journey into government was far from straightforward: despite securing 54 per cent of the vote in the second round, the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to concede defeat and it was only until he was captured by forces loyal to the opposition that he left power.

Taken together, these legitimate and illegitimate advantages of incumbency are extremely powerful. Writing in the Journal of Democracy, Gideon Maltz estimated that presidents win 93 per cent of all elections they contest in electoral-authoritarian contexts. In other words, in this set of countries multiparty politics has so far resulted in limited political change.


According to many measures of democracy, Kenya, Liberia and Sierra Leone are “semi-democracies”. Although they are some of the most open countries to fall into this category, all three are recorded as being “Partly Free” by Freedom House, meaning they stop short of being fully democratic. Similarly, the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit rates all three as “hybrid regimes”. On a 1-10 scale, in which 10 represents the ideal democracy, Kenya scores 5.33, Liberia, 5.31 and Sierra Leone 4.55.

Of course, each measure of democracy has its problems, in part because it is difficult to put a number on a concept like “freedom of speech”, and in part because they tend to reflect the interests of those who put them together. However, these ratings fit with the way that people who live in these countries view their political systems. According to the Afrobarometer survey, in 2015 only 38 per cent of Sierra Leoneans and 48 per cent of Kenyans viewed their countries as “a full democracy or a democracy with only minor problems”.

The figures was slightly higher for Liberia, at 53 per cent, but even here 39 per cent of people believe their state is either “not a democracy” or “a democracy with major problems”. In line with this, under half of respondents in Kenya (47 per cent), Liberia (43 per cent) and Sierra Leone (30 per cent) reported being satisfied with the way democracy works in their country. The ratings provided by the Economist Intelligence Unit are useful because they break down their evaluation into different categories – electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties. What this reveals is that although Kenya, Liberia and Sierra Leone initially appear to have similar levels of democracy, they vary considerably when we start to look at the different components of the political system. This is significant, because it has important implications for how the elections that will be held over the next fourteen months are likely to play out.


For example, Kenyan readers will not be surprised to learn that the country is ranked higher when it comes to political participation (6.67 per cent) than electoral processes and pluralism (5.33 per cent). This fits with the country’s recent political experiences, in which keenly fought election contests have resulted in high electoral turnout, but controversial and disputed results.

The figures look very different for Liberia and Sierra Leone, which are rated as being less impressive than Kenya when it comes to participation (5.86 and 2.78 per cent respectively), but much less problematic when it comes to the electoral process (7.83 and 5.68 per cent). If the Economist Intelligence Unit is right, these findings suggest how democratic these countries appear to be to outside observers will depend on the stage of the electoral cycle they are at.

During the campaign, Kenya, with its mass rallies, impressive posters, televised president debate, and mass mobilisation, is likely to appear to be the most vibrant democracy of the three. But when we get to polling day itself, and the process of counting and announcing the results, the tables are likely to turn. At this stage, it is the more robust electoral process in Liberia, and to a lesser extent Sierra Leone, that is likely to impress observers. By contrast, in Kenya the electoral system has historically struggled to do justice to the democratic aspirations of ordinary citizens.

Of course, this outcome is not set in stone. Institutions can be both strengthened and weakened. Most recently, Kenya has undergone important processes of institutional regeneration following the passage of the 2010 constitution and the introduction of devolution. Similarly, in January the Independent and Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) was given new staff, who will be entrusted with managing the election in August.

The new commissioners now have seven months to prepare credible polls. It is clear that there is considerable will within the reconstituted IEBC to both strengthen its capacity and improve its reputation. However, in the general scheme of elections seven months can go by in the blink of an eye. It is therefore important that the Commission hits the ground running, and that any decisions about infrastructure and technology are made as soon as possible.

Nic Cheeseman is professor of democracy, Birmingham University, the United Kingdom.

Twitter: @fromagehomme