Elections and Development in Africa

What does democracy / democratization result in within African contexts? Robin Harding argues that due to the increase of elections, combined with a majority of many countries being rural, is an increase in rural interests as an outcome. The answer is summarized in his 2020 book "Rural Democracy: Elections and Development in Africa", which is part of Oxford's series on African Politics & International Relations. The book draws on doctoral work, with research done in Botswana and Ghana (which have case study chapters). This is a brief book of 169 pages, but makes a clear and compelling case for the this rural interest process as one influence on elections as well as outcomes of elections. I began the book skeptical, and probably shared some of the biases of the literature that focus on ethnicity and clientelism (interestingly, the countries I have more experience with are mostly not included in the 28 countries included in the sample). I would have liked to see some discussion on governance systems (Nigeria and South Africa, included in the sample, are federal; and South Africa is an outlier; in these contexts the expression of rural interests may differ. Would have also liked to see this tested not only in improvements of outcomes, but in actual expenditures. Could further strengthen the case, in both instances. Well worth a read (fortunately a paperback version makes the book somewhat more accessible to those beyond the gated walls of privileged academia - Oxford sells the hardback for $155!). Very short summary by the author is here.

From the start: "Elections are a powerful thing, but they are not a panacea. Despite being a means to peacefully manage conflict, they remain inherently conflictual, creating winners and losers out of those with competing interests and ideals. In light of this recognition, this book is in part an attempt to understand who has benefited from democratic electoral competition in sub-Saharan Africa, and why." (p. vii)

"Urbanites across Africa are unhappy with their governments. Evidence from public opinion data demonstrates this clearly; urbanites are significantly and substantially less likely to support incumbents, and more likely to express dissatisfaction with democracy itself. While there are likely multiple facets to any explanation for this situation, it is not merely the result of structural factors, because these differences transcend demographic variations, and differential access to information. My argument in this book is that the large residual differences, those unexplained by structural factors, result from the differential experiences of urban and rural residents with regard to government policy choices. Put simply, urbanites sense that they are getting a raw deal." (p. 54-55) 

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How to Rig an Election

"The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic" (p. 1). This paradox is explained in How to Rig an Election (2018) by Cheeseman and Klaas (published by Yale). In sum: "How is it possible that the flourishing of elections has coincided with a decade of democratic decline? The answer is that dictators, despots and counterfeit democrats have figured out how to rig elections and get away with it." (p. 3) The book is an excellent read for undergraduate students, it is clear and accessible. The chapters cover gerrymandering (Ch 1), vote buying (Ch 2), repression (Ch 3), hacking the election (Ch 4), stuffing the ballot box (Ch 5), playing the international community (Ch 6). Each chapter provides a range of examples of each issue, from a set of countries the authors have more experience with (which are global in nature). The focus of the book is on contexts where democracy does not have deep roots (they say the emphasis of cases is more on how to "strengthen or build democracy, rather than rescue or defend it").

The chapter on hacking the election is fascinating in that it sheds light on new directions of rigging, particularly the use of technology. The authors state that there is "a clear risk that we are heading towards a future, previously imagined only in science fiction movies, in which our actions and beliefs are recorded and manipulated at a level of detail that was hitherto unthinkable. And whether we like it or not, such methods are being increasingly deployed in an ever-larger number of elections, with important consequences. When elections are decided by small margins, big data can be decisive." (p. 148)

Conclusion? "In the twenty-first century, elections will be rigged with strategies both old and new, because autocrats have learnt a simple but sad truth: it is easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all. For that reason, we must learn an even more uncomfortable truth: right now, those who rig elections are outfoxing not only their own people but also the international community. Unless we learn how to identify these strategies and address them, then election quality will continue to decline. Over time, this is likely to call the basic legitimacy of democracy into question, as people grow frustrated with elections that fail to usher in change." (p. 239) 

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