NO ONE batted an eyelid earlier this year when Turkmenistan’s strongman, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, was “re-elected” with nearly 98% of the vote. Why, one wonders, did he bother with an election at all? Yet in a growing number of fragile new democracies, especially in Africa, where similarly absurd results were once common, elections have become genuine. Since 1991 incumbent governments or leaders have been ousted at the ballot box at least 45 times, most recently in Nigeria, Ghana, the Gambia and Lesotho.
Nerves still jangle at election time, especially when the outcome is likely to be close, patronage and corruption are pervasive, and rigging and violence have blighted previous ballots. A fraudulent election can tarnish a country’s reputation, threaten its stability, and deter investment and aid.
Kenya, whose voters go to the polls on August 8th, is just such a case. Violence after an election in 2007 left at least 1,300 dead and 700,000 displaced. The country is the economic and strategic hub of east Africa, so a credible election this time matters not only to Kenyans but to many beyond their borders. Foreign and local observers will be vital to ensuring a clean contest in such a “transitional democracy” (see article).
Beat the cheat
In the bad old days no one (except the hapless citizens of the countries concerned) seemed to care much if elections were rigged, provided they were more or less peaceful. International monitors would swan in a few days before the poll and—more negligently—fly out again a day or two after it, often declaring the election to have been “free and fair” because they had seen voters cast their ballots without violence. No matter that fraud and bad blood often increase after polling day.
Nowadays foreign monitoring teams start to arrive a good month before the big day and stay for at least a month after it. The outsiders help in several ways. They provide expertise on technology, especially concerning the registration of voters and the method of vote-counting. Monitors also help co-ordinate “parallel vote tabulation”, whereby samples of the results from randomly selected polling stations are collected and presented quickly to prevent fraud in the later counting process. Crucially, foreign monitors support local watchdogs who do most of the work and face the greatest risks.
Foreigners alone cannot ensure fair elections. They rely on the co-operation of local governments, to gain access to the entire process, including the voters’ register. But they can raise the bar against rigging. Beyond constraining the incumbents’ power, their scrutiny can build popular trust in the elections—and make it easier for losers to accept defeat.
It is an expensive business, but worthwhile. Worryingly, the Trump administration is trying to slash the State Department’s budget which helps support democracy, including election monitors. Congress is right to resist such cuts. Fair elections make Africa more stable. Giving up on them spreads anger and poison around the world.Top