Americans are probably familiar with “Super Tuesday”, when several states conduct their presidential primary elections on the same day.

However, Africans enjoyed their own “Super Sunday” on March 20, with elections taking place in several countries across the continent – Benin, Cape Verde, Senegal, Republic of the Congo, Niger, and Zanzibar in Tanzania.  Despite the great differences between them, Niger (a large, landlocked, arid country in West Africa) and Zanzibar (a small, tropical archipelago off the eastern coast of Tanzania), both held presidential elections with important consequences, since in both cases the opposition boycotted the vote

In Zanzibar, citizens participated in a re-vote on Sunday after the Zanzibar Electoral Commission (ZEC) annulled the results of Tanzania’s October 25, 2015, elections due to “irregularities.” The Civic United Front (CUF), an opposition party with strong support in Zanzibar, boycotted the March 20 re-vote in protest of the annulment. Since the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1995, elections in Zanzibar have been hotly and, at times, violently contested between the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party and CUF.  Prior to the announcement that the October results from Zanzibar would be annulled, CUF claimed several victories in races for the Zanzibar House of Representatives (HoR), local councils, and presidency. The ZEC cited CUF’s pre-emptive victory announcements among its reasons for annulling the results since announcing unofficial results is prohibited.

In 2010, after several years of political negotiations between Zanzibar’s main political parties, CCM and CUF, the Zanzibari constitution was amended to accommodate a government of national unity (GNU) if an opposition party receives more than 10 percent of the vote in a general election. In a GNU, the elected president would choose the First Vice President from the leading opposition party, expected to be CUF in October 2015. With the boycott, CUF was unlikely to win the presidency or receive enough votes to supply the First Vice President.

Most election boycotts occur as protests against the pre-election period, if, for example, there is a failure to maintain a level playing field. The CUF boycott in Zanzibar however, was different as it was related to the post-election decision of the ZEC to nullify an election that CUF believed it had won. Several important questions remain unanswered. Is an election boycott a potent weapon on the African continent? Is it good for democracy? Should the electorate continue to participate in ‘selection’, ‘coronation,’ or ‘confirmation’ processes in the place of elections? Could CUF have avoided a boycott of the elections if the original election results could have been contested under the constitution?

On Monday, March 21, the ZEC announced the final election results. CCM won the presidency with 91.4 percent of the vote. As no opposition party won more than 10 percent of the presidential vote, there is no legal basis for the formation of a GNU.  The new president of Zanzibar was sworn in on March 24.

Voter turnout was low as a result of the boycott by opposition party supporters. In Pemba, a CUF stronghold, it was reported to have been as low as 25 percent. Election boycotts inevitably affect voter turnout, which can affect the perceived legitimacy of the election, but most constitutions do not stipulate how many voters should turn out for an election for it to be considered legitimate. Following its boycott, CUF stands to lose representation in the Zanzibar HoR and local councils, which also decreases its chances of having its representatives be among the five legislators elected from the Zanzibar HoR to sit in the Tanzania National Assembly. When interviewed by journalists, President Shein – the incumbent and CCM candidate – pointed out that taking part in elections was a voluntary act and the boycott by the opposition did not nullify the rerun. While true, it is clear that the March 20 results represent a smaller proportion of the Zanzibari electorate, and likely over-represent the views of CCM compared to CUF and other opposition parties.

The next five years will be a critical period for both the ruling CCM and CUF. The ruling government has a duty to heal and close the political rift without the assistance of a GNU.  On the other hand, CUF will have to rethink its strategy, as it now does not have a single elected seat in the new government of Zanzibar. While parties should be free to challenge results or strategically boycott elections, a strong democratic system depends upon citizens having genuine choices between alternatives in regular, free, and fair elections.

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