Africans want Open Elections - Especially if they Bring Change

Observers now commonly assert that multiparty elections are institutionalized as a standard feature of African politics. By this they mean that competitive electoral contests are the most commonplace procedure for choosing and changing political leaders across the continent. As a result of a wave of regime transitions in the 1990s, the vast majority of African countries abandoned one-party systems and military rule in favour of democratic constitutions that guarantee – at least on paper – civil and political rights, civilian control of the military, and legislative and judicial oversight of the executive branch of government. Almost all countries have introduced a regular cycle of elections (usually every five years), and many have placed constitutional limits on the number of terms that African presidents can serve (usually two). Today, encouraged by the African Union’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, all political leaders feel compelled to pay at least token respect to a new set of continent-wide electoral standards. Several key questions arise: Do Africans actually support elections? Do they regard African elections as free and fair? Do high-quality contests boost the value that citizens attach to elections? This Pan-Africa Profile offers affirmative answers to all these questions. Drawing from recent Afrobarometer survey data covering more than 30 countries across Africa’s main geographical regions, we find that Africans want open elections and, for the most part, think they are getting them. Importantly, popular support for elections is driven by the perceived freedom and fairness of the balloting process. Digging deeper, we find that the quality of elections – and thus popular support – is seen to hinge on whether elections bring about leadership alternation, which we define as a change not only of the top ruler but also of the ruling party. This “change effect” suggests that the political preferences of the general public are just as essential as formal political rules – if not more so – to the health of democracy in Africa.