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Chimanikire Vusa
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The Cost of Democracy: Third World Africa

06 May 2013, 11:29

Cost of Democracy: Africa

Elections across the globe are recognised to be exceedingly costly. From vigorous, complicated campaign races, to simple administrative requirements to prepare a nation to go to the polls. All these things have costs, and lots of them.

This article is written to analyse the true financial and social costs of Democracy focusing on third world African countries. Furthermore, the article zeros in on election costs, election customs and typical election outcomes in third world African nations.

It is widely understood that Democracy is a system of governance that features:

·         A government that comes into power through elections

·         Elections that are frequent, free, fair and competitive

·         Guaranteed civil rights

·         A free press that it is independent of the government and multiple resources of media

·         Accountability to voters

·         Government transparency

·         Horizontal accountability between branches of government

·         Internal sovereign government

·         Near universal adult suffrage

·         Rule of law

Upon a closer observation of these features it is apparent that society is called upon to retain a certain degree of understanding of some of those requirements in order to fully exercise and enjoy them, for example, civil rights and accountability to voters. This degree of understanding stems only from a criterion dictated by the level of education the people of that nation enjoy. Education costs money. We shall not dwell too much on education as we’ve seen in some third world African countries, high literacy rates do not always translate into peaceful and successful elections and a sound democracy. Libya records an impressive 82.6% literacy rate and Egypt 71.4%, both relatively high rates and yet they are prone to civil unrest, political instability and apparently failed democracies.

The focus of this article shifts away from education but rather, directs one’s attention towards high unemployment rates, poor living conditions, poor sanitation, plentiful rural settlements and many subsistence farmers. These are the things that inevitably make democracy expensive in third world African countries.

When speaking about the cost of democracy one cannot disregard vote buying. Democracy requires a government to be elected by the people in a free and fair election within a multi-party system, so unavoidably it is a matter of a party selling itself to the people, a nationwide marketing campaign. It is evident that Democracy is often subject to a system of Clietelism in various aspects. The idea provides “exchange systems where voters trade political support for various outputs of the public decision making process.” This scheme is tacitly accepted in some systems provided it does not blatantly contravene the law nor amount to gross nepotism or corruption. However, on the “Dark Continent” the system tends to emerge in its most primitive suit. Voters are persuaded by simple things for basic survival such as seed, maize meal and fertilizers, nothing of sound policy or long term promises of improvement. Where favorable policies on pay as you earn tax, welfare benefits, industrial labor regulations, advanced civil rights and healthcare ought to be the basis of debates and sway the voter; countries that suffer high unemployment rates, poor living conditions, poor sanitation, plentiful rural settlements and a substantial throng of subsistence farmers on a demographic scale Clientelism stifles democracy. This phenomenon has been noted in Argentina, Mexico and India.

Majority of the population in these countries, poor, hungry, uneducated and informal require very little to gain their favor, very little of which is inconsistently given. In many cases even if they vote for the party that grants the trivial gifts that appease them for an interim period leading up to the election, these gifts cease to be delivered post election period regardless of the result. There have been reports of ruling regimes ignoring “the rule of law” (in any sound constitution) using tax payers money to purchase seed, fertilizer, tractors, vehicles, farming tools and livestock feed in order to distribute to the people, only when elections are dawning. This process establishes an uneven playing field between the parties due to an unfair financial advantage enjoyed by one and not the other.  Yet another fact comes to light, due to deep tribal rivalries and punitive customs one realizes nepotism and development in one region and immense neglect in another by a regime based on votes cast during an election; paying the price for democracy. This cannot be democracy.

Arguably, democracy can be said to fuel tribalism and separation in contrast to its undertaken aptitude to unite the people under one nation. Different political views, ideologies and preferences draw a distinction between people and tribes. The Kenyan election in 2007 illustrated this clearly: a period characterized by political violence driven by tribalism, ethnic differences and geographical diversity intensified by the election time.

The role of both long and short term policy in such nations is of little or no significance when it comes to securing votes during an election period. The primitive vote buying mechanisms employed hardly prove to significantly better the lives of the voter nor do they allow a proper assessment of a leader’s qualities and visions for the country. The small influential elite groups which consist of high profile business owners are the only individuals that seem to benefit from policies that favour them and not their employees in the form of preposterous minimum wage rates, tax cuts, import duty immunity and impunity granted due to close ties with government officials.

Conspiracy theorists are of the opinion that some Third World African governments actively inhibit economic growth and education for this purpose. It can be deduced that Clientelism in Democracy has a tremendously negative effects on Democracy in third world countries and is extremely detrimental to their development.

Vote buying is not the only cost to Africa; in fact it would come in later on the list. The first and biggest cost to the African people is the actual cost of holding an election itself. Before looking at the funds required for campaigns one must observe the actual costs involved when holding general democratic elections. Prior to an election a census must be held and a registration of voters must be carried out. After such procedure electorate bodies must be formed, monitors employed, transport costs, stationery equipment, security, data capturing technology, police and soldiers on standby in some countries to ensure peace. All these things cost money and in perspective to the size of the economies of some of the countries, it is not shocking to realize that the funds required for the election itself may constitute more than 30% of a country’s annual national budget if not more. Often third world African countries shoot their national budgets and strain their resources just to accommodate general elections.  It is reported that elections in such countries the cost per registered voter can be as high as US$20 a voter as opposed to a mere $2.7 in countries like Brazil where even that is considered still too high. This cost per registered voter exists in a nation where a substantial amount of the people live in poverty, off less than a US$1.70 a day. The election to be held in Zimbabwe later this year (2013) is set to cost a staggering US$219 million, while within the national budget the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare received US$22, 7 million in non-wage budget support out of an earmarked US$170, 2 million. With that comparison in mind, one has to ask could these resources not be better allocated?

Resources used to make available the privilege of democracy to a people that may never reap the benefits of such a general election. Resources that could have been reallocated towards food security, health, education and economic development, resources spent that will never be fully recuperated and that the people hardly see their worth because their vote was based on a few bags of seeds they received just before Election Day.

The risk of election rigging is very real and cannot be easily discarded. This has been known to be common practice in a number of third world countries.

Other social costs that Third World African countries are prone to incur during elections periods are fear, intimidation and outright political violence. It is no secret that election periods across these countries are largely characterized by violence, bloodshed and in some cases a full scale civil war is the result. Elections create tension and provide a climactic epoch for violent “revolutions.” Democracy, costs lives for these African people. Propaganda, controlled media coupled with revolutionary rhetoric conjure up a tragic cocktail. This brings one back to the list of requirements for Democracy stated earlier on in the article. Without a careful adherence to and regulation of those requirements an election becomes somewhat futile. Political violence also hinders the economy of that state to a large extent. Studies illustrate that tourism is negatively affected by violence and this results in job losses and a loss of revenue.  In the fight for democracy we lose to poverty, even though it may be momentarily, that moment lasts a moment too long. Furthermore, the cost of reconstruction and repairing a war torn city or town after such a period is heavy on the state.

Furthering on the economic point, one may argue that international investment will convalesce the funds spent on democracy and elections. Across numerous countries on the African continent evidence shows that “election years are significantly correlated with lower or less credit worthy sovereign ratings” from the international world and agencies. This tells us that a nation’s ability to borrow is impaired significantly in the period preceding a democratic election. Locally this generates economic uncertainty and places the load of the election on the backs of the few tax payers. However, the United Nations Democracy Fund does provide some financial assistance in monitoring elections, aid in prevailing peace but a substantial chunk of the burden still lies on the country because the UNDEF funds are limited. This then brings one to yet another cost, which may be the sovereignty of a nation. Should a state run elections sponsored by another country, organization or a tycoon? What impact could this have on the policies made by the government that subsequently rules and on the country at large? The twinge of Perpetual Indebtedness to another country, organization or individual is made a reality in such instances.

However, one cannot take away the fact that Democracy has an appealing moral stature attached to it. ‘The Will of the People’ must prevail and they must be able to choose their ruler based on their beliefs, culture, understanding on what is best for them. Undoubtedly it is always easier when one has an equal basis of comparison between the parties and what they can do for them, but this is where third world Africa fails. In a number of countries that fall within our scope, civil rights do not exist in realizable forms and press freedom is either irrelevant because of multiple languages and low literacy rates or is entirely non-existent. Once again, when looking at the benchmark of what democracy requires, Third World Africa does not meet the prerequisites. The question of what came first the chicken or the egg arises. Most academics would say a detailed constitution that meets international standards would seal this fissure but in a nation where the law fails to castigate and correct constitutional breaches the constitution is in fact ineffectual and futile.

One can agree that Democracy is indeed a very noble concept that should be available to all citizens of the world but there is a submission that it can only work when tailored to suit the direct specifications of certain nations. Some scholars are of the belief that economic growth fosters democracy due to the fact that growth is fueled by education. In first world elections, the public is fully immersed and involved in the decisions they are making to elect a new government through understanding of policies and the impacts they have on their lives. A reliable, impartial legal system is of the utmost value coupled with civil rights. A free press, universal adult suffrage and government transparency all create the environment required for democracy to truly work to reveal the will of the people.

It appears as though for democracy to work as it is executed and accomplished in the first world; a noteworthy level of economic maturity must have been attained by the nation employing it. In order to enjoy the true fruits of an elections apart from a much needed transition from oppression to freedom or the conception and deliverance of fundamental civil rights, the people must understand the deeper meaning of democracy and what it offers them. The lemon of a general election must be worth the squeeze.

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