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The other election in Africa this week

Most media attention has been focused on Liberia’s election this week, and with good reason. Also in Africa, however, Cameroon recently held presidential elections on Sunday.  Opposition leaders demanded the election be nullified, after Paul Biya was reelected to a sixth term. Biya has ruled Cameroon for 29 years.  In 2008, he passed a constitutional amendment, which abolished term limits.

Cameroon’s election wasn’t exactly fair, but what I found interesting was the assessment of what I would have thought to be a legitimate Election Observation Mission (EOM):

But France, which was Cameroon’s former colonial power and played a significant part in Biya’s rise to the helm in 1982, saw no egregious violation in the poll.

“According to the International Organisation of the Francophonie and the Commonwealth, who followed the development of these elections, we can consider that they took place in acceptable conditions,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.

If you haven’t already, read Judith Kelley’s great paper, Election Observers and their Biases. It does a great job of exploring the behavior and incentives of EOMs based on a number of criteria.  Her main argument is that the assessment of elections is influenced by the mission’s organization, the source of funding, and the host country.

She also discusses the problem that occurs when observers want to reward progress made in a country, but the environment does not warrant a positive assessment.   It is in addressing this phenomenon that Kelley notices certain peculiarities in her data.  The most striking is the fact that the more violent a pre-election environment is, the more likely observation missions will endorse an otherwise flawed poll.  Kelley also touches upon some issues that have been addressed in previous writings, such as the phenomenon where pre-election irregularities are more likely to be ignored by an assessment team than those that occur during the polling process.

I really don’t know Cameroon, or France’s current interest in it, so I’m unsure of if any of these particular findings would explain this strange assessment.  But this does fit Susan Hyde’s theory, which concludes that regimes have made the calculation that the presence of election observers has become a signal of democratizing, while the risks of a negative election observation report outweighs the benefits of not inviting any foreign observers.  I would say that Paul Biya benefited from allowing an election observation mission, especially one from France.

How should international actors respond to evidence of a stolen election?

In Power Sharing and Inclusive Politics in Africa’s Uncertain Democracies, A. Carl LeVan argues that traditional methods of building inclusive and consociational institutions can undermine accountability and democracy.

Building inclusive institutions is usually thought to be an important element in building stable democracies.  Arend Lijphart famously advocated for divided societies to implement a form of consocialtional democracy in ethnic cleavages are managed by grand coalitions of elites who wield mutual veto points in decision making.  Juan Linz advocated against presidential systems, attributing the shorter regime life of Latin American nations to their majoritarian nature.  Africa, it would seem, with its colonial era borders, would be the perfect setting to measure the impact of such institutions.  While many African institutional designs are more a result of colonial heritage – single member districts for former British colonies, two-round elections for French – LeVan argues the continent has developed both formal and informal mechanisms for governing across ethnic cleavages.

LeVan believes, however, that consociational and powersharing models, which were built by theorists examining Latin American “pacting,” are less relevant in modern day Africa.  Powersharing governments make it difficult for voters to evaluate government performance (which party is responsible for the state of the country?)  and nearly impossible to punish bad governance.  It also can create inefficient spending if it includes doling out useless ministries to placate power blocks.  While democracy promoters have pushed for strong institutions, LeVan continues, they have subsequently undermined them by legitimating “rule changes” to accommodate election losers.  Powersharing agreements after flawed elections like those in Zimbabwe and Kenya have set a standard for ignoring the results of an election in the name of forming an inclusive government.   LeVan goes on to say that exporting systems designed for post-conflict environments to areas where democratic values are more ingrained, only decreases accountability and undermines the legitimacy of the government.

I’m not as familiar with some of the countries that LeVan mentions but I think his main point deserves serious consideration.  Lebanon’s method of extreme powersharing may help avoid civil conflict (most of the time)  but in part because of the problems that LeVan mentions: mutual veto points help avoid conflict by making sure less gets done; this essentially makes control over government worth less.   While diluting the value of government has an understandable benefit if conflict mitigation is your number one priority,  it’s probably not the best way to develop truly democratic institutions.

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