A Year of Checks on Ballots

Image: Flickr, Rebecca Kahn
Image: Flickr, Rebecca Kahn

At least 10 African countries are scheduled to hold presidential or parliamentary elections between April and December — ballots that could affirm the maturing of democratic practice on the continent and mark a critical turning point in the political evolution of key states.

Overall, incumbents seeking re-election appear to face little threat from weak or fragmented oppositions (See story, page 10). But important transitions are likely even where ruling parties retain power. Presidents Sam Nujoma and Joaquim Chissano, two liberation stalwarts, have vowed to step down, marking the end of the eras they dominated in Namibia and Mozambique. In Malawi, President Bakili Muluzi was set to retire after a decade in power after failing in his bid to amend his country’s two-term limit. Although his hand-chosen successor was likely to face little challenge, Malawi’s constitutional system has already withstood an important test.

The all-but inevitable re-election of Thabo Mbeki, meanwhile, will inevitably set in motion an unprecedented season of inter- and intra-party manoeuvering that could fundamentally alter country’s post-apartheid political landscape in the coming years.

As eAfrica went to press, three additional countries – Burundi, Central African Republic and Sudan – were still considering whether to conduct elections this year. In two of those countries, Burundi and Sudan, ballots would celebrate years of painstaking progress toward peace after long-running conflicts.

Here’s a closer, state-by-state glance at what’s at play

Algeria: 8 April

Political unrest flared in the days ahead of the presidential poll as opponents of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika took to the streets in the Berber-dominated region of Kabylie. Several opposition leaders, accusing the authorities of fraudulent preparations, have banded together to boycott the election. Even so, Bouteflika was favoured to win a second five-year term, having secured backing of the National Democratic Rally party of Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia and its key ally, the Islamic MSP party. Late last year, a court banned the activities of the country’s largest party, the National Liberation Front, even though its leader, Bouteflika’s former Prime Minister Ali Benflis, was the most popular of the five challengers. Poverty and unemployment were key concerns among voters.

South Africa: 14 April

South Africa’s third democratic election holds little suspense. A giant among heel-nipping rivals, the ruling African National Congress was coasting toward easy victory. The only question was a matter of size: Will the ANC increase the size of its already formidable parliamentary majority and also strengthen its position in the pivotal provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape? A late alliance between the predominantly white Democratic Alliance and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party is the ANC’s only real obstacle. Speculation also centred on potential shuffling in President Thabo Mbeki’s cabinet. The ministers of health, land, and foreign affairs, and Deputy President Jacob Zuma, have been lightning rods for criticism during Mbeki’s first term. Issues most important to voters this year included land redistribution, job creation, crime prevention and housing. The ANC’s erratic approach to HIV/AIDS and its controversial ‘quiet diplomacy’ in Zimbabwe were also standard campaign fodder for opposition parties.

Malawi: 18 May

This will be Malawi’s third free elections since 1994, when President Bakili Muluzi’s ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) ended 31 years of one-party rule under the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda and moved the country into a new constitution-based era of multiparty democracy. Muluzi, who has served the maximum two terms, is set to step down. His chosen successor, an economist-turned-diplomat named Bingu wa Mutharika, is expected to face off against a still-forming coalition of challenging parties. The opposition, however, seemed divided and unlikely to rally behind a single candidate. For ordinary Malawians, the main issues were poverty, food security and HIV/AIDS. (See stories, pages 4-7)

Botswana: October

President Festus Mogae was set to lead his ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) to an unthreatened election victory, as voters were expected to reward the current government for maintaining the country’s tradition of careful economic management. In another indication that constitutional democracy is deepening in Africa, Mogae has already announced that, if re-elected, he will observe the country’s two-term limit. Botswana, the region’s oldest multiparty democracy, has enjoyed peace and relative prosperity since independence in 1966. Concerns among voters included poverty, social inequality and unemployment.

Cameroon: October

President Paul Biya, seeking his last seven-year term allowed by the constitution, was due to face off against an undetermined field of opposition candidates. The contest was unfolding amid ample allegations of human-rights violations by the government, and follows parliamentary elections in 2002 that were marred by broad allegations of electoral fraud. Biya has been in power since 1982.

Tunisia: October

The last time President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who has been in office since 1987, sought re- election, he won 99.4% of the vote. That as five years ago, but little appears to have changed. Six months before the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, the opposition was still weak and divided. Ben Ali’s critics have raised concerns about human rights abuses, assaults on Islamist opponents and crackdowns on the media.

Namibia: November

Like its liberation-era sister movement in South Africa, Namibia’s ruling South West Africa People’s Organisation was facing little threat of being ousted from power in presidential and parliamentary elections later this year. With President Sam Nujoma, the man who has dominated Swapo for decades, finally stepping down, the one question was whether Swapo would extend its majority? The party’s pre-ballot congress in May will crown a successor. Regardless of the ruling party’s candidate, however, voters so far appeared likely to reward the government for 15 years of economic growth. The opposition, meanwhile, seems more fragmented than ever. Land reform and HIV/AIDS were key issues.

Niger: December

President Mamadou Tandja and his ruling Mouvement National pour la Société de Développement face a growing challenge from its main foe, Mahamadou Issoufou and his Parti Nigérien pour la Démocratie et le Socialisme. The latter has been strongly critical of the government’s alleged mismanagement of public finances and its attack on the freedom of the press. Tandja’s infrastructure programme has also drawn fire from the opposition.

Ghana: December

Voters face a choice in both presidential and parliamentary elections. President John Kufuor and his ruling New Patriotic Party, were expected to argue success in stabilising the economy and improving health services and infrastructure. The main opposition candidate, Prof. John Atta Mills of the National Democratic Congress has begun to emerge from the shadow of his predecessor, charismatic former president Jerry Rawlings, who ruled Ghana for a decade before Kufuor’s election in 2000. Mills advocates an alternative, social democratic agenda.

Mozambique: December

The one potentially close contest of the year. President Joaquim Chissano, who held power for 18 years and presided over Mozambique’s successful transition from decades of brutal war to a decade of peaceful political coexistence, was set to retire at the end his current term. In his place, the ruling Frelimo party was preparing to field businessman and veteran politician Armando Guebuza against Afonso Dhlakama, its key opponent and long-time leader of the opposition Renamo both during the war and now in parliament. Chissano, a champion of the African renaissance, will remain Frelimo’s party leader. He has built a legacy of moderate leadership and economic stewardship in office, but his departure provides Renamo with an opening. Dhlakama has broad popular recognition that Chissano’s successor lacks. Renamo scored important victories in recent local government elections.