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The international spotlight has been on North Africa this year, where Arab autocrats have been overthrown by government opponents seeking democracy in three separate countries – Libya, Egypt and Tunisia.
But farther south on the continent, a less dramatic democratic trend has been playing out for years.
Seventeen of the 49 nations in sub-Saharan Africa are holding national elections this year. That's partly an accident of timing. But it's also a sign that holding power in Africa these days increasingly requires a leader to hold regular elections.
To cite just one recent example, longtime opposition leader Michael Sata won the presidency in the Sept. 20 election in Zambia.
"Once you have an opposition winning elections and assuming power, then that's a quantum leap toward democracy and the rule of law," says John Campbell, a senior fellow in Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Not All Elections Are Equal
Once you have an opposition winning elections and assuming power, then that's a quantum leap toward democracy and the rule of law.John Campbell of the Council of Foreign Relations
Many African countries lack independent media and election commissions or competitive opposition parties. Several countries have been ruled by the same autocrat for decades or have a leader who succeeded his own father.
Even when open elections are held, things don't always go smoothly. In countries where ethnic, religious or geographical differences have political resonance, elections can exacerbate those tensions.
That was the case in Ivory Coast last year. The November election was seen as fair, and the opposition candidate, Alassane Ouattara, defeated the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo. But Gbagbo refused to give up power, triggering months of fighting that left some 3,000 people dead before he was ousted.
Ouattara, who is now president, was in Washington a week ago at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. He said the 2010 crisis could be traced back to 2000, when the country failed to settle political differences with a vote.
"This led to rebellion and agreements that were never fully implemented until we finally got to a national election" last year, he said.
Elections Become More Common
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, only five countries in Africa held competitive elections on a regular basis, according to Staffan Lindberg, a political scientist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.
But the arrival of democracy in Eastern Europe and elsewhere also had an impact on Africa. "Something like 40 of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa now have regular, multiparty elections," says Nicolas van de Walle, a government professor at Cornell University.
In some cases, elections are held mainly for show, van de Walle says, something that both domestic constituencies and the international community demand. "Even the worst dictators have accommodated themselves to the new expectation that you're supposed to be democratic," he says.
Where Democracy Succeeds
Some countries, such as Zimbabwe and Djibouti, hold elections that are essentially meaningless, according to analysts. Many others have taken only halting steps toward elections that can be considered free or fair.
But elections can also be part of a process that trains citizens of a nation to resolve their conflicts peacefully, says Lindberg. Countries such as Liberia and Sudan have used elections as a bridge out of periods of civil war toward reconciliation.
In Zambia, building up the institutions that support and succor a democracy has been a slow process. But the baby steps Zambia took may have led not only to a "change election," but also to something more enduring than the cycle of elections followed by conflict or coups seen in many African nations.
North Africa Catching Up
Democracy is difficult. It can sometimes take a generation or longer for a country to move from dictatorship to a stable democracy that is upheld by new leaders and stronger institutions.
"North Africa and the Middle East are only embracing democracy now," says Denis Kadima, director of the Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa, based in Johannesburg. "The revolution has taken place, but democratization is still to come."
What protesters in places such as Egypt and Tunisia have been clamoring for this year — changes in leadership and real elections — are already becoming more the norm in sub-Saharan Africa.
It's good to think of Tahrir Square — the heart of the protest movement in Cairo — "as catching up, rather than leading," says John Stremlau, vice president for peace programs at the Carter Center.
Elections might be faulty and often unfair, but each time one is held, it opens up the opportunity for citizens to demand better processes the next time around, says Lindberg, the Swedish professor, who also teaches at the University of Florida.
"The Arab Spring is wonderful," he says, "but history seems to suggest that this slow process of democratization is better than a fast, revolutionary one."
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