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From Africa to America, manipulation and money make elections less than truly democratic

Roch Marc Kabore addresses supporters after winning Burkina Faso’s presidential elections. Reuters/Joe Penney

From Africa to America, manipulation and money make elections less than truly democratic

Roch Marc Kabore addresses supporters after winning Burkina Faso’s presidential elections. Reuters/Joe Penney

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


2016 is almost upon us and with it the global media event that is the US presidential election. In November, Americans will vote for their next national leader – a practice more than 90% of countries share.

In West Africa, the people of Burkina Faso voted last month in national elections. The vote followed a popular uprising last year that ousted the president of 27 years, Blaise Compaoré, after he tried to extend his rule.

An election date of December 13 has been set in the Central African Republic. The vote was postponed in October due to violence.

The spread of elections after the Cold War led to a burst of optimistic scholarship about the prospects for democracy around the world. Citizens have never been more empowered; they get to choose their leaders (in theory, at least).

But optimism, especially in political matters, never lasts long. By the turn of the millennium, more and more regimes appeared to have made only cosmetic shifts (adopting democracy’s formal institutions but not its substance). Concerns about democratic backsliding and reversal grew.

New democracies in particular were criticised for holding elections despite lacking many civil liberties and even the basic rule of law. Elections could be rigged, manipulated and subverted to sustain authoritarianism.

A park in Nairobi became home to military barracks to stop protests after Kenya’s 2007 presidential election. DEMOSH/flickr, CC BY-ND

The latter has been particularly true in Africa. A number of countries held multi-party elections at the time of decolonisation. By the late 1980s, however, 42 out of 47 regimes in Africa were closed autocracies or socialist regimes holding non-competitive, single-party elections.

At the end of the Cold War, a rapid transition took place. The proportion of countries in Africa holding multi-party elections jumped from 25% in 1988 to 84% in 1994. Today, 94% hold multi-party elections for national office.

A long menu of manipulation

The quality of elections in Africa still varies widely. They range from elections plagued by violence and fraud (like those in Kenya in 2007 or the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011) to the relatively free and fair elections in (Ghana in 2008 and Cape Verde in 2011).

The variety of methods that can be used to manipulate and undermine an election’s integrity is dazzling. The list includes manipulation of electoral legislation and gerrymandering, opposition and voter intimidation, flawed voter registries, biased media and campaigning, ballot box rigging and vote count manipulation. The possibilities come down to context, which includes a country’s level of democratisation.

Electoral manipulation can be classified into three categories: coercion, co-optation and institutional manipulation. These strategies are distributed along a continuum from more coercive to more co-optive.

One way to determine election outcomes is to intimidate voters and opposition candidates to reduce competition sufficiently for the incumbent to stay in power. Another way is vote buying to “persuade” voters with gifts and financial rewards. A third strategy is to manipulate institutions – that is, the legal framework and administration of elections.

All these practices require organisational and financial resources. However, some are more costly than others.

For example, manipulating electoral institutions may be relatively easy for incumbent political actors. Vote buying often requires more extensive financial resources and organisational networks.

Manipulation of results often occurs without voters’ knowledge. Truthout.org/flickr

It makes sense that political actors choose the cheapest, least visible and most effective forms of manipulation. The aim is to avoid attracting formal and informal sanctions, in the form of legal prosecution or depleting resources, and losing legitimacy among citizens.

A study of electoral manipulation in Africa between 1986 and 2012 found institutional manipulation of electoral management and administration, along with the tabulation of results, likely to be most effective. Electoral institutions are highly accessible to incumbents. Most of their work is “behind the scenes”, so in many cases institutional rigging is the least costly and least visible option.

The next most favoured tactic is coercion. Though intimidation is more visible, it involves relatively little cost and is quite effective. Vote buying is the most costly and least effective type of manipulation.

It makes sense, then, to expect political actors to prefer institutional manipulation and coercion to vote buying. However, the options available to them – the “menu of manipulation” – depend on the political and economic context of each election.

Political actors will not be able to get away with manipulating electoral institutions or intimidation in more developed democracies. In such countries, independent media and judiciaries will denounce (and prosecute) such behaviour. The manipulation of institutions only really succeeds in authoritarian regimes where the rule of law is weak and the bureaucracy vulnerable to partisan capture.

Not all good things go together

This means that, paradoxically, as countries move towards democracy, they experience an initial increase in vote buying.

The new Varieties of Democracy database includes almost 400 fine-grained indicators of democracy in 173 countries from 1900 until 2012. These reveal a trade-off between different types of electoral manipulation. When institutional manipulation and coercion is higher, vote buying is lower; as democratisation progresses, there is a shift in the opposite direction.

It seems democracy in Africa promises better administered but not necessarily fairer elections. Not all good things go together. The move towards democratisation will mean more money in politics, more patronage and more clientelistic offers thrown around, at least in the short to medium term.

The 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests gave voice to concerns about the Koch brothers and money politics in the US. flickr/David Shankbone, CC BY

Whether money politics will eventually decline as democratisation progresses remains to be seen. This trade-off poses questions about the quality of democracy not only in Africa but in established democracies like the US. Multibillionaires Charles and David Koch are projected to spend US$900 million backing Republican candidates in the 2016 presidential campaign.

In a CBS newspoll this year, Americans, regardless of political affiliation, agreed that wealth has too much influence on elections. They also agreed that candidates who win office promote policies that help their donors.

In Africa or America, money politics is a continuing concern – underscoring that high-quality democracy depends on more than just elections.