In their new book How to Rig an Election, Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas argue that across much of Africa and beyond, elections aren’t just failing to remove unpopular autocrats from power, but can “actually make it easier for dictators to maintain political control”.
The authors explain this in an article about the book published by The Conversation this week.
“In other words, authoritarian regimes that hold elections are more stable than those that don’t,” they continue, demonstrating how so many autocrats are no longer clinging to power by brute force.
Instead they are doing so by rigging elections. That enables them to deflect and divide opposition or avoid retaliation from the international community, such as sanctions and termination of aid.
Leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) ought to be reading this book. They face a really testing year for SADC’s theoretical commitment to democracy and truly free and fair elections, as enshrined in its founding Treaty and other instruments.
The voters of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Madagascar, Zimbabwe and eSwatini (as King Mswati III unilaterally renamed Swaziland last week) will all go to the polls this year.
In that superficial sense all are democracies. But whether the collective will of the people will be reflected in the outcomes is a different matter.
Of the four, SADC is really only paying attention to those where threats to democracy are also threatening stability.
This week SADC’s double troika (three leaders from the troika of SADC itself as well as three from its Organ on Politics, Defence and Security) held a summit in Luanda, Angola, to discuss problem member states.
eSwatini didn’t even make it onto the agenda because it remains relatively stable, even though its elections in September will be a joke. Opposition parties are barred from contesting and the absolute monarch can overrule Parliament.
Zimbabwe was also not on the official agenda, though in the end it was briefly discussed.
Now that Emmerson Mnangagwa has got rid of troublesome Robert Mugabe (with a little help from his military friends) and has promised free and fair elections in July, SADC seems to be looking the other way.
On Friday SADC executive secretary Stergomena Tax met Mnangagwa in Harare and was reported – admittedly by the state-owned Chronicle newspaper – as having told him that after sending a SADC pre-election assessment mission to Zimbabwe earlier this year, “generally our findings are that you are set for elections”.
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