In Wars Guns and Votes I argued that without effective checks and balances elections do not resolve problems but rather intensify them. I chose Cote d’Ivoire as the book’s case study. Current events there are confirming my worst fears. Gbagbo looks set to cling to power through his army despite losing the election.
Fake elections are worse than no elections because they disguise the true nature of an autocratic regime. In order to restore confidence, all elections should visibly meet two conditions. One is that citizens should be confident that the actual conduct of the elections is ‘free and fair’: no candidate should be excluded, voters should not be subject to intimidation, and the conduct of the ballot should be above questioning. This requires ample international observers, combined with constituency-level reporting of the vote count.
The other condition is more difficult: a defeated incumbent should not have the scope to retain power. At a minimum this requires constitutional checks and balances. The Electoral Commission needs to be independent, and not (as in Cote d’Ivoire) subject to higher level authorities controlled by the incumbent. But sometimes such constitutional provisions will not be enough. I know of an African election in which the president instructed the chief of the army that, in the event of presidential defeat, he was to arrest all opposition leaders and impose martial law.
Gbagbo’s key power obviously is not his control of the Constitutional Court, but his control of the army. In the face of such brutal strategies for the retention of power, democracy depends upon countervailing checks and balances. In effect, there must be sufficient independent military security to protect the victor of the election against the forces of the incumbent. This will usually require international troops. Currently, in Cote d’Ivoire international troops are literally protecting the election victor in his hotel. Without this it is probable that he would by now be either imprisoned or worse. Ironically, in view of Gbagbo’s current critique of France, his initial authority depended upon his successful summoning of French troops to protect him from the army of his predecessor.
International troops are also currently ensuring that in Haiti there can be no power grab by force following a disputed election. But in most situations international troops are not on the ground during the election and so the best that could be provided would be an over-the-horizon guarantee.
In my book I proposed that the international community should provide a guarantee of ‘best efforts’ to protect any African government that won an election certified as ‘free and fair’ from a coup d’état. Crucially, if an incumbent clung to power illegitimately, as in Cote d’Ivoire, this guarantee would be publicly lifted. Note that this would not imply that in Cote d’Ivoire international troops would now fly in: this is unrealistic. Rather, the international community would be inviting a country’s own army to oust a ruler who clung to power illegitimately. It would be signalling that, given the illegitimacy of the ruler, a coup from anywhere within the army that committed to proper elections would be legitimate. I think that this would be an effective deterrent against clinging to power. Rulers cannot control all the many levels of a military command structure from which a coup might originate. For good reason they are likely to fear the consequences of being ousted by a coup much more than those of stepping down honourably after electoral defeat.
But the ethnic divisions underlying the Ivorian election, which are typical of Africa, suggest an even deeper problem with democracy than the excessive power of incumbents. Rule by the majority breaks down if it implies permanent exclusion of some groups from power. Nigeria has evolved a reasonable de facto constitutional solution: power should alternate between the major ethnic groups. The democratic contest is then limited to a choice as to whom, within the ethnic group whose turn it is, should be president. Power alternation turns governance into a repeat play game. One of the robust results of game theory is that such games generally produce satisfactory outcomes: conduct while in power is disciplined by the simple strategy of tit-for-tat. If one ethnic group abuses its turn in power, if can anticipate that the other ethnic group will do the same when it is next in power. Typically, players rapidly learn that they do best be using their turn in power for the common good. This, rather than the frustrating attempts at ‘power-sharing’, may be Africa’s way to functioning democracies.
This article originally appeared in Social Europe Journal.