Electoral Commissions and the Consolidation of Democracy in Africa: Progress, Challenges and Prospects for the Future | Wilson Center
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Electoral Commissions and the Consolidation of Democracy in Africa: Progress, Challenges and Prospects for the Future

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Webcast Recap

On November 13, 2014, the Woodrow Wilson Center Africa Program hosted an event titled, “Electoral Commissions and the Consolidation of Democracy in Africa: Progress, Challenges, and Prospects for the Future.”

Speakers included Ms. Priscilla Mulenga Isaac, Director of the Electoral Commission of Zambia, Ms. Gretchen Birkle, Regional Director for Africa at the International Republican Institute and Dr. Keith Jennings, Senior Associate and Regional Director for Southern and East Africa at the National Democratic Institute. The event was moderated by Dr. Monde Muyangwa, director of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center.

The session explored the role of electoral commissions in African’s democratic development. As Dr. Muyangwa noted in introduction, the African landscape has changed dramatically over the past two decades and it is important for practitioners and scholars to both identify the progress made and continue to build upon these improvements. The panel additionally explored elections as a crucial piece to a much larger process of democracy, a piece prone to tension and conflict, especially in fragile countries. Recent political transitions in Africa, such as the resignation of the president of Burkina Faso and the death of the Zambian president – with uncertainty and violence characterizing the former and a smooth transition of power in the latter – illustrate the importance of established and trusted political mechanisms for managing such transitions.   Through the exploration of country-specific case-studies, the panelists analyzed the implications for the future of elections and democracy in Africa. 

Ms. Priscilla Mulenga Isaac, Director of the Electoral Commission of Zambia, discussed the achievements that have been made in the Zambian electoral process, such as increased voter registration, voter education and the Commission’s open engagement with political parties and the citizenry. She noted that while the Electoral Commission of Zambia had achieved many successes, it also had a few challenges including limited infrastructure, a lack of financing, and the lack of power to enforce decisions. 

Ms. Gretchen Birkle, Regional Director for Africa at the International Republican Institute, continued the discussion with a comparison of internal and external stakeholders shaping the democratic processes in African countries. Ms. Birkle highlighted the importance of consensus-building between civil society, international groups, and political parties as well as the need for complimentary legislative action to parallel advances made by electoral commissions. For example, she noted that in the Democratic Republic of Congo, delays by the National Assembly have hindered democratic development, while in Mali a complicated set of several electoral management bodies and an absence of monitoring and coverage has had negative consequences for both the efficiency and integrity of elections. 

Finally, Dr. Keith Jennings, Senior Associate and Regional Director for Southern and East Africa at the National Democratic Institute explored the cases of Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia, offering a series of lessons learned as stakeholders move forward in addressing the function, integrity, credibility, observation, evaluation and successes and failures of future elections and the larger democratic process. As Dr. Jennings highlighted, policymakers must evaluate events within a larger process-oriented framework and within the context of the prevailing political environment, paying heed to the influence of past elections on our perception of the future.

While elections are not synonymous with democracy, they are indeed a crucial aspect in a larger process of African development. As nineteen African nations head to the polls in 2015, the enhanced management of the electoral process will be a critical element in determining whether elections will serve as a trigger for violence and insecurity or a further step in the upward trajectory of African democracy.

Speakers