In Pursuit of Development

Is it the end of democracy in Africa? ‚ÄĒ Nic Cheeseman

Episode Summary

Dan Banik and Nic Cheeseman discuss how democracy is viewed on the African continent, the extent to which democracy has delivered development, whether the Rwandan model of development can be replicated elsewhere, and what should be done to stop elections from being rigged.

Episode Notes

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford.¬†He works on democracy, elections and development, including election rigging, political campaigning, corruption, ‚Äúfake news‚ÄĚ and executive-legislative relations.¬†Nic is the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018), Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018), and The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa (2021).¬†

Resources:

 

Host:

Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik  @GlobalDevPod

Episode Transcription

 

Banik                    It has been great to be in touch with you over the years and I am thrilled that we finally have a chance to actually chat on this show. Welcome.

 

Cheeseman           Thank you. I cannot wait. I have been looking forward to this all week.

 

Banik                    And even Nairobi traffic could not stop us today. You are in many ways Mr. Democracy - you have been studying democracy for many years. Let's start by discussing the fact that while you and I love democracy and we find democracy to be of intrinsic value but also instrumental value, not everybody is convinced, right? That democracy is a good thing. And that democracies are not necessarily universally loved. It is a contested concept. So, let's begin by discussing how do you think democracy is viewed on the African continent? What are the current debates around democracy as you see them?

 

Cheeseman           That is a great question. And I think you are absolutely right. From when I published Democracy in Africa in 2015 to today if I go and go and give a talk, I will get many people who think that democracy is probably the best political system for Africa. But I will get at least two to three questions in every talk about whether authoritarianism is not better for development in Africa? Whether democracy does not breed corruption and conflicts and whether a different module (perhaps the one Paul Kagame is running in Rwanda) would not be a better way for Africa to develop. Is democracy possible in this particular context? So, definitely a very big debate. And I think a couple of things have really promoted the debate and the idea that authoritarianism might be a better module in the last few years. One is the rise of China, which gives an example of a non-democratic alternative that is economically successful. And one is the kind of democratic failures of Western states. The example of the US with Donald Trump and the Capitol attack. The UK and Brexit. The kind of apparent inability of established democracies to manage their own business. And as I said the third thing on the continent is the effective work that Paul Kagame has done both in the sense of operationalizing the development model in an authoritarian state but also then very explicitly advertising it as an alternative to western democracy. So, I think those three things taken together have really made this a big debate. But when you look at actual survey data and I encourage listeners to go to afrobarometer.com. You can get all the data and download it and play around with it. Look at all the surveys they have done over many years in many counties. What you will see is that the vast majority of African citizens want democracy. And if you ask them what democracy means for many people it means a very classic kind of understanding. It means elections, government of the people, for the people, and by the people. And it is also interesting that a lot of people would say that Africans might want to form a democracy that is actually different from the one in the West. But we see in surveys very high levels of support e.g., presidential term limits, freedom of speech. I always say that despite the fact that this is a debate, and it is a good debate to have. It is good to force people who think that democracy is a good thing to defend that and evidence that and explain why. I also think that if we move away from some very powerful voices, we start to see that the vast majority of people living on the African continent actually want to live under a democracy.

 

Banik                    I am glad you mentioned the Afrobarometer surveys. And for many years they have shown that there is strong support among people for democracy. But there is this feeling that democracy has somehow failed many of these citizens. There is this dissatisfaction with what democracy has given a lot of these countries. How do you see that kind of result from these surveys? And I am particularly interested in hearing your views on Rwanda since you mentioned that. I have been speaking with Paul Collier and he was full of praise on what Rwanda has achieved. He was referring to the fact that what Rwanda has done (apart from the charismatic and some would say visionary leadership of Paul Kagame) it that there are elements of a common interest state and some of these combinations of things that have held Rwanda develop leadership. Some sort of common interest state that has been built in contrast to many other countries on the continent that have had democratic elections but have failed to deliver development for their people. 

 

Cheeseman           Thanks, Dan. I think if we start at the beginning of what you were saying, and we look at the frustration many people feel towards the way democracy has played out. I think a really big question we have not yet answered is whether people are angry at democracy itself or do people feel that democracy has not been properly implemented in their country. In other words, are we seeing people giving up on the concept and principle of democracy and looking for an authoritarian alternative, or when they say they are dissatisfied with democracy what they really mean is they want to live in a democracy and this government is not allowing them to? I think we need to know more about that. But it is very clear there has been a decline in satisfaction with democracy in many African countries. And I think it is easy to see why. On the one hand, we see modest levels of economic growth but in many countries that is not translated into better jobs or better standards of living for those at the bottom of the scale. At the same time, we see repeated elections that are often controversial and some cases fraud. And some of the recent research at the Afrobarometer data suggest that perhaps one of the things that are driving dissatisfaction with the way democracies are playing out is this combination of economic difficulties and fraud in elections or controversial elections. And so, my real concern in terms of how we move forward is that the real danger for democracy is that if we see a combination of economic downturn (which we are experiencing now due to covid-19) and this consistent pattern of problematic elections gradually eroding people's confidence that the political system can deliver change. I remember looking into some survey data that basically show that in Uganda the majority of Ugandans do not believe you can change power through the ballot box. And as soon as you get to that level of frustration, anger, and recognition of the challenges within the system, then of course support of democracy is really vulnerable. But it is also important to say that almost everywhere I have done research and fieldwork and talked to people I found democracy activist risking their life to promote free speech, save independent media and protect human rights. And I found citizens on the ground who even if they might favour certain kinds of restrictions on their activities fundamentally want to be able to have a say in the decisions that affect their own lives. And to me, the desire to have a say over those decisions has been particularly pronounced in countries I have worked in Africa where people have lived under long periods of authoritarian rule, whether one-party states or one-person dictatorship or military rule and perfectly understand the problems of those systems and what it was like to not be able to say what you think. And also understand that those systems failed economically even more than the current democracies are failing. And I think one thing we must not do is forget the lessons from history. Rwanda is indeed an impressive example right now. But we know from the 1870s and 1980s that these one-party states, military rule, and one-person dictatorships performed poorly on national integration, building national identity, and economic growth. Many countries in Africa were not much richer in the 1990s than they were in the 1960s. Some of that has to do with global inequality and colonial legacies. But it was also because those governments failed to perform well in the economy. So, the idea of welcoming those systems back across the continent to generate better economic performance is really problematic. And that brings me to your question about Rwanda. I think there are wo things that are very important to say about Rwanda. The first is that the Rwandan model works for very specific historical reasons that are rooted in Rwanda's own particular political history. It is based on Paul Kagame establishing tight centralized control of both the political system and over economic rents and using that to basically establish a kind of long-term horizon driving government-led investments and then economy where the party has taken over the key areas of the economy and party and state-owned enterprises have taken over the key areas of the economy and used that to drive investment and to sustain political monopoly. And that combination of factors has enabled that kind of party or government-dominated economy to boost economic growth while not becoming mired in corruption. I do not think that model could be implemented in most countries in Africa. I do not think you could implement that model in Nigeria. Who would select as the dominant president who runs for 25 years in Nigeria? Who would you select in a country like Kenya? The level of centralization that is necessary for that system to work would be unviable and would lead to mass popular anger amongst those communities and groups who do not seem to be represented by the person chosen and I think that would foster political instability that in turn would undermine the economic gains. So, I do not disagree that the Rwandan model is impressive in terms of its economic performance, but I am not sure it can actually be applied anywhere else. And the second point is I think we also have to ask about the sustainability of some of the authoritarian models. If we had been having this conversation 5-10 years ago the two examples, we might have given would be Ethiopia and Rwanda. People will not give Ethiopia today because the system has fallen apart because its internal contradictions essentially undermined the growth model that EPRDF tried to put together. And I am not suggesting that this is going to happen to Rwanda tomorrow or in the next five years at all, but I am just saying that one of the things we need to ask is whether are those authoritarian models of development really sustainable? Was the model in Uganda sustainable? Probably not. Ethiopia? Probably not. Rwanda? We are still there but I am not sure that is a sustainable model of development for the next twenty years. So, I think for me I do not see the model being applied elsewhere effectively and I am not sure how sustainable it is even in the countries in which it is applied. And that is why I am very reluctant to go along with the idea that authoritarianism might somehow deliver better developmental outcomes.

 

Banik                    I totally see your point about how Rwanda has been somewhat unique. The history, the genocide, the rise of the party, the leader - all of this has come together rather nicely and somehow this model appears to be more attractive than as you were saying 10 years ago if one were looking at Ethiopia. By the way, for a while Ethiopia was looking very good in terms of being the fastest-growing African economy and in the world. But Rwanda has done certain things that are much better. It is difficult to see another Paul Kagame somewhere else. The criticism has been what happens when he leaves and if he does leave who will Rwanda find to replace him. But I want to return to this other example you mentioned. The popularity of the rise of China and how important China has been in Africa in terms of infrastructure projects and just the sheer visibility of China. And a lot of African citizens are traveling to China, they have seen this very visible development that has taken place. I have been teaching in Malawi in many years and when I talk to civil servants there and in many other countries there is often this praise for Kagame and this longing to replicate that. But there is also this praise for China and the kind of debate that they often are involved in. Some ask why should democracy and civilian freedoms come first? Look at China where they achieved a certain level of economic development. Why cannot we also have that in our parts of the world? What do you think of the impact of the Chinese model? Do you think it has been counterproductive for the democracy on the African continent?

 

Cheeseman           I think it represents a major challenge. One of the things that we that believe in democracy need to do is to explain why, in the African context, we think that democracy might work better than the Chinese model. It is not for me to tell people living in African countries what system they should have. It is not my decision and certainly, as a white middle-class northern guy it really is not my place. There are two reasons why I advocate democracy. First, the survey data, as we discussed, shows us that people want democracy and I think we need to be responsive to what most people want. Secondly, the empirical research I have done shows me that democracy is actually going to be a better model for economic development. Maybe I will just say a couple of things about that. It is tempting to think that the Chinese model would work. We have a long history with this idea within the literature. The idea that we need developmental states, and they might be kind of more authoritarian and they might get things done and be more efficient, they overcome counteractive action problems and they basically allow for rapid development and infrastructural development and once we have got that we can then democratize. Because the danger of democracy is that everybody demands everything early on and everybody wants to be satisfied after every election, and so the government gets distracted in terms of providing short-term consumption and satisfying people's immediate needs rather than making the short-term sacrifices needed for the long-term economic growth. That kind of idea has been there within economic literature and to some extent within the political literature for the last couple of hundred years. But I think if you actually look at sub-Saharan Africa there are reasons to believe that that model does not actually work the way people want it to. It might have worked in South Korea; Taiwan and it maybe works in China right now. Because again, going back to the 1970s and 1980s we saw examples of that kind of model. We saw one-party states, we saw leaders that had vast powers and relatively limited checks and balances. And what we saw in that period was that the tendency towards more authoritarianism did not grade more efficient systems that allowed for the construction of a more effective state and development of the economy. It actually created a system where the political monopoly encouraged corruption and abuse. And we had higher levels of corruption and abuse in most of those systems than we have in the counterpart democracies of today. So, what I think will probably happen if someone waved a wand and you would swap democracies in Africa for more authoritarian states with fewer checks and balances is not that we get more efficient governments that would deliver development in the next ten years but that actually the problems people identify in those systems would become exacerbated because those politicians would have no accountability or a thread of losing a future election. And we would actually start to see a return to the kind of stagnation from the 1980s. Now, saying that is basically to say that we might want to think very carefully about what kind of political and economic models work best in a different context. It might turn out some work well in parts of Asia but might not work so well in Africa. It might be that democracy does not work in some parts of Asia and somehow works better in Africa. I think we need to move away from the idea that every model would work in every context and think about what the specific features of the political and economic context are we are trying to address, what kind of models might work there. Just to give you an example if we take that sort of approach, if we look at the authoritarian regimes in Africa, their state capacity and ability to deliver services over the last 10-15 years and you look at the same group of states in other regions. What you will see is that in other parts of the world there has been a kind of an authoritarian resurge. And there has been a bit of an improvement in authoritarian regimes around the world. But the authoritarian regimes in Africa actually stagnated, they have not had that improvement. There is a couple of examples where people would say that had, look at Rwanda. But if you at the other authoritarian regimes in sub-Saharan Africa almost none of them have emulated the Rwandan example. In most cases, we have not seen a significant improvement in the quality of life or national identity, infrastructure, or any other dimensions of state capacity you might point to. So, I think my point here is that Rwanda is a really interesting case, but I also think it is a bit of an outlier. And I do not think the rest of Africa should not follow an outlier. The percentage of authoritarian regimes in Africa that have performed well is vanishingly small.

 

Banik                    It is pretty depressing if you look at the number of democracies that are thriving because recent reports show very clearly that we are facing a democratic recession. On Twitter, there is quite a lot of tension on the Democracy Index from 2020 that the Economist magazine published earlier this year. That was showing that government-imposed lockdowns and all kinds of other pandemic control measures have resulted in this huge rollback of civil liberties last year. And many countries have seen democracies being downgraded and I visited the websites and I found that very few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that got into this index were classified as being full democracies. We are talking about Mauritius, Botswana, and South Africa. And then there are of course these other categories like flawed democracies as in Ghana and Namibia and hybrid regimes in Malawi and Madagascar and Senegal. So, you have this whole range and on the other end of authoritarian regimes, you have Congo and the Central African Republic, CHAD, etc. If you were to look around, and I know you are talking to me from Nairobi, what is your impression? If you were to say has democracy really been working? What would you highlight as the success stories in Africa at the moment?

 

Cheeseman           I agree with you about the general trend, and I have written about it in a couple of places. I think we have seen a pandemic abuse by leaders to consolidate their powers, we have seen great censorship, for example, the pandemic and the thread of covid-19 being used to prevent opposition parties from campaigning properly in Uganda. I recognize all of that. But because of my personal experience from last year, I am more positive. I was lucky enough to be in Malawi for the 2020 elections and the nullification of the 2019 elections where first the constitutional and the Supreme court have nullified the election and the rerun was then won by the opposition and formed a new coalition. And I was also very lucky to be in Zambia where the opposition leader won an incredible victory by a huge margin over the president who was clearly attempting to manipulate the elections. So, for me, having been to the two countries that during the pandemic moved towards democracy rather than away from democracy. Having been there and seeing democracy win and seeing pro-democracy forces defeat governments that were entrenched gave me a big shot in the arm for my belief in the ability of democracy to work and the ability of citizens and parties working together to force out poorly performing authoritarian regimes. Of course, it is not the case that you can replicate everywhere. Over the past months I have been having conversations with colleagues and democracy activists in Kenya and Zimbabwe who were desperate to know what the lesson from Zambia is and how can they do that there. And one of the sad things we have to say is that you cannot just replicate that. But if we look at those cases it demonstrates that African states not only can build democratic systems but also over the past years have been leading the world in terms of having some positive stories in the context of a very pandemic and democratic backsliding.

 

Banik                    I love the fact that Malawi was the country of the year in some of these reports. I have been going to Malawi for sixteen years. Just in the past three years, I have not been able to go, and I really miss it. But I have been in constant contact with my students and colleagues and even though there was this optimism with what the constitutional court was able to do and reversed the outcome of the election and there was this new coalition come to power. There is this creeping enchantment with the new regimes. We are in a way back to this earlier discussion about how this initial euphoria with election leads to this disappointment along the road where new regimes seem to be doing more of the same as the previous regime. I wanted to turn our attention to the role of elections, and I know you have been writing about this. In one of your recent books The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa you argue that elections are the fight of intense moral contestation which in a way explains why there is so much attention on participating in an election process that may actually for many appear to be flawed. So, there is this intense interest vote even if people are somewhat sceptical. So, elections are viewed as this very important catalyst for democracy and development and there is this hope in many parts of Africa that the secret ballot is going to really transform the state and the state will suddenly then able to deliver development for the citizens. Is that really the case? What did you find? Do elections really turn people into democratic citizens?

 

Cheeseman           To me, this is what I most want people to read. It tries to turn most of what we think about elections on its head. It says elections in Africa are not just about ethnicity, vote-buying, and ethnic census. And it is not an ideology-free space in which nothing matters and there is no policy, no debate, no issues. As you say, these are signs of important moral contestation. A great example of that right now is Kenya where deputy president William Ruto is preparing his presidential campaign and he is running on the narrative that he is a hustler who has fought his way out from nothing, and he is on the side of other Kenyans that are hustlers. He is explicitly critiquing the people in power who is he characterizing as the dynasties and the people who have been in power since the independence and say that they are exploiting ordinary citizens. That his candidacy and presidency will return the power and development to the ordinary citizens. In lots of cases, I have been in it is very clear to me that all those things are there. There are these interesting high-pitch moral battles and arguments about what does it mean to be a good leader. What should leaders do? Is it appropriate for leaders to their communities or for the nation? We often see, especially at the local level, if you look at debates surrounding peace and arguments around local candidacies, governorship, and elections. Real debates about what it means to be a good leader and whether the citizens want somebody to be a sort of a civic leader who is providing public goods, or do they want to be a more patrimonial leader who is providing those targeted resources. And so, the book is sort of an appeal for people to actually understand election in a much more sophisticated way and not just to look at how people vote and who wins. I look at how elections transform how people think about themselves and how they think about their relationship to the state. And in that, we were kind of inspired by Staffan Lindberg. His book on Democracy and Elections in Africa. He holds the argument that if you repeatedly hold elections, three elections in a row seem to be a particularly significant threshold, election drive democratization, and repeatedly holding elections will improve the quality of democracy over time. And one of the hypotheses in there is that holding elections trains voters, it installs democratic norms and values, and so on. So, in the book we wanted to test that. Is it true that if people go for multiple elections they will start to become more democratic in their attitudes and will then support the process of democratization? And the answer is that it is a bit more complicated than that because people are experiencing two things at the same time. They are experiencing a system that is telling them that they are in a meritocratic state that is delivering but they are also experiencing a reality that is much more complicated in which there are elements of patrimonialism and contestation and corruption and poor electoral performance by the electoral management body. And so, what we describe in the book is that there two processes are happening at the same time. People are in a sense being indoctrinated in a kind of form of multi-party politics but with a lot of contradictory elements going on at the same time, so people are not simply becoming more democratic in their attitudes just by going for multiple elections. Neither are they experiencing every election and getting frustrated and being more willing to tolerate authoritarianism. Actually, both of these things are happening at the same time and so people's attitudes towards elections and democracy are very complex. And what we describe is a kind of landscape in which most people we talk to actually recognize the value both of the civic monocratic states and of leaders who are acting in patrimonial ways. And they recognize both of those things, and they want states to some extent to deliver both of those things. And that means we get a form of politics which from the outside might look like it is all ethnicity and big man. But it is more complicated. I will just give you two examples. One interesting thing is that you cannot just buy votes. Anybody who knows anything about the African election knows you cannot just buy votes. If you turn up in a village in Malawi or Kenya and people do not know you. And if they do not see you as a credible member of the community that can be trusted simply turning up and handing over five hundred thousand dollars is not going to win you the election. And there are lots of stories in the book about candidates who try to buy their way to power and were rejected by the electorate in favour of candidates with a lot less money. Because they were not seen to be authentic, legitimate and they did not conform to the local norms of expectations of what should a leadership be. In most countries, when we look at Ghana, Kenya, and Uganda what we find is that people think that vote-buying and giving money is something that is okay if it is legitimated by a much broader relationship of care. In other words, if it is a sustained relationship between the leader and the community that has evolved over multiple years and involves multiple forms of assistance providing money within that is seen as legitimate around the election and should not be punished. But if somebody turns up at the community and simply tries to buy votes outside of that relationship people will have a very different attitude. They identify that as vote-buying, and they see that as corrupt and problematic. So, you have to understand the local understanding of what it means to be a legitimate leader and you have to conform to those as well as bring your money. Just to give one other example it is also true then that if you think about the way in which leaders position themselves. There is a tendency to say that all leaders are trying to mobilize ethnic for choosing money. But that is not how most African present themselves. Most presidential candidates know that they need to at least look like they are not just in favour of one community during the campaign. There are lots of reasons for that. One is that there are not that many countries where one ethnic group represents the majority of the population. So, they need a coalition across ethnic groups. But it is also because even members of their own ethnic group do not want to elect necessarily something that you would call a tribalist. In most countries, the term tribalist is actually a term of abuse. Not a term of endearment. So, what we actually show is lots of leaders that go to quite a great length trying to portrait themselves as being more national and not simply representing one particular community. And again, to go back to Kenya, William Ruto is a great example of that. He is arguing that he is for all Kenyans who are hustlers, and he is arguing that he is going to run a national campaign with a national party and that he is not going to be ethnic. And he is implicitly critiquing that past model - a big man politics where each coalition member simply delivers their support to their community as a block. So again, when we look at voters and political leaders, it is a much more complex moral economy of what it is to be legitimate and acceptable. It is not just about ethnicity. Those ideas are mixed and combined in complicated ways with what it is to be civic and what it is to be meritocratic and what those ideas hold. And so just to end, the key point is that these ideas of democracy and meritocracy are not simply something that has been taken from outside Africa and implanted in some alien western kind of module. They have been domesticated, they are engaged, they are processes and ideals that have evolved over many years include pre-colonial African societies which often included ideas of check and balances and limits on the power of political leaders. And these are actually deeply believed by citizens, they are not simply something that people pay lip service to. So, we see both ideals of leadership, the more patrimonial and the more civic, as things that are genuinely rooted in African societies. I should say that the book only focuses on three countries, and we are very cautious to say that you cannot necessarily generalize to other countries in Africa and other political systems. But I do think that it is important that we start taking this slightly more cautious approach to elections and a much more complicated approach to understanding things like ethnic politics and vote-buying and so on.

 

Banik                    Let's talk a bit about leadership. Because I do see your point that there is far more interest, even a tendency for leaders to project themselves as being presidential, representing the whole country and yet, in countries like Malawi, there is always this expectation from your own group that it is their turn to be prioritized now. Because the previous regime prioritized their group. So, there are all of these pressures and surely it is not easy for a president that represents the whole country to not somehow prioritize his or her own ethnic group. So that is one issue. Then the other one has to do with some candidates and leaders trying to not look very presidential. I am thinking about the late John Magufuli in Tanzania. When he came to power, a lot of people thought he was a breath of fresh air. He was going on those surprise inspections at hospitals to figure out whether the equipment was working and punishing people. He was basically rolling up his sleeves and doing all the unpresidential kinds of things. But that initial euphoria ended up being very short-lived and there were authoritarian tendencies also. How would you characterize some of these leaders? These charismatic individuals? Not just the Kagames, but also the Magufulis who claimed to be reformed, to shake things up, and then unfortunately many of them disappointed. Which I think also explains why people are a bit frustrated with democracy.

 

Cheeseman           Absolutely. I think you are right about how difficult it is to bring together these different expectations and I often say to people after someone has won to be careful how much they expect from this person. Because this person will have intense pressures on them from their own community to deliver first and foremost to that community. But they have also made these promises to the nation that they are going to deliver public goods and development for everybody. And those two things are very hard to do at the same time. And that is not to excuse the disappointments that people have in leaders who have failed to perform in government. But I think we need to develop a better understanding of why that happens and the competing pressures that are placed on people after they win office. And help to explain why leaders often fail to deliver in a way that we would hope. In terms of what you were talking about with Magafuli, this is very interesting. We have seen the rise of a kind of populist politics in recent years. Michael Sata winning in Zambia in 2011. Magafuli in Tanzania. I think there are two things to say here. One is that in some ways it is interesting that we do not see more populists. If you look at Africa, the number of high-density low-income areas that people would call slams. If you look how packed people are in those areas, how disappointed people are. It is surprising that we do not see more leaders trying to mobilize a kind of classic populist trope. We have actually seen relatively few that have done that successfully. Michael Sata is perhaps the only one that has really won power on a classic populist trope. One of my Ph.D. students argued that Magafuli has elements of populism but also elements of other things and is not a classic populist. So, I think it really is quite interesting that we have not seen more populists. And the significance of ethnicity mitigates against the kind of cross-ethnic classical kind of a populist model. Perhaps we will see more of that in the next ten years with the process of urbanization that is currently going on. The second thing to say about why did these particular leaders disappoint is because one of the things populists tend to do is to undermine institutions. So, almost every populist that I have studied has basically argued that they can in some way channel the common man and understand what the common man wants and needs and that they are a man of action that is going to deliver that. And because they are connected to the common man, they believe that they have the legitimacy and because they are that man of action, and they are efficient they are not going to put up with institutional checks and balances. And so, what they often do are things that are quite good in the sense that you want the anti-corruption campaign, the cleaning up of the health system, etc. But the way in which it is done, and the way money is spent does not follow the constitution, the rule of law, the committee system. So, what you end up with is a system that initially looks like it is working really well but it actually works in a way that undermines all the institutional mechanisms and the checks and balances of the system. And the problem then is that if you run that system for a couple of years and then either the populist leader themselves goes bad or loses direction or starts to become more corrupt or as with Michael Sata you see the leader dying in office and somebody else then inherits the system. What you have created is a system that is completely open to abuse. Because all the checks and balances and protocols that used to be there have been removed in the name of serving the people. For me, I see populist leaders as a double-edged sword. On one hand, Michael Sata came into power in Zambia, and he delivered something. He delivered a minimal wage and greater expenditure on public services. And you could see that as the populist leader delivering for the common man. But, at the same time this process of institutional decay and de-democratization which then makes the country more open to both corruption and authoritarian backsliding. And I think Magafuli fits in that model as well. And if we see populists within other countries, I would suspect that we might also see that. People being very excited in the first year and increasingly worried as we move on from that.

 

Banik                    One final set of issues I would like to talk to you about has to do with another wonderful book that you have written How to Rig an Election. Most of us would think that the surest way is to stuff the ballot boxes, but you highlight many other very creative and perhaps not so creative ways of rigging elections. You could prevent opposition supporters from getting an ID card, prevent them from coming to the election booth, organize election centres very far away from where people that would most likely not vote for you live. You could have invisible forms of rigging. You were saying earlier that it is very difficult to come up and bribe but there are ways of bribing the electorate. You could have various types of patronage politics and clientelism that still exist. You have political violence doing what the British did very well in India. And of course, you have media and digital tools. All of this happens quite regularly which undermines people's faith in elections. So, what would you say to people who are interested in elections and doing something about elections being rigged? What can be done to stop these elections from being rigged in all these ways that you highlight in the book?

 

Cheeseman           It is tough because the people in power often have the most money and capacity and they are always one step ahead. I remember someone from a domestic observation saying to me that the problem is that we are always trying to fix the last election while the government is always preparing to rig the next one. And what he meant was that the government always has a new strategy. So, we are fixing the voters register and the government is finding a new way of manipulating the vote. And there is a risk that we spend the entire time chasing our tails as the government is evolving. I think there is a bunch of things. I think we need to spend more money. Given how impulsive elections are and people always say that you focus too much on elections. And there is an element of truth in that in the sense that we should never say that elections equate to democracy. Democracy is so much more than elections and if we do not have the other aspects of democracy, elections are not very meaningful. But it is also true we do not spend that much on supporting and trying to promote better quality elections. And if we are to keep up with authoritarians who want to manipulate them, we will need more expenditure and more focused expenditure. That is the first thing. The second thing is that from my experience, the one thing that is most effective at stopping election rigging is an opposition party that is well-organized and is able to put its own party agents in every polling station in the country. That was what was important when I was in Ghana in 2016 and allowed the opposition party to create a parallel vote and to tell everyone that they won the election before the election commission announced it. And that was also very important in Zambia where UPND did a good job of getting party agents into polling stations. People forget this now but on the floor of the electoral commission when the first set of results was read, they actually challenged the commission and forced them to go back and to look at the result the commission was going to release and that was different to the one the party agents have identified and recorded on the ground. So those party agents in every polling station can create that parallel set of results. And when that happens it becomes significantly more difficult for the ruling party to rig. Because you end up with a model where once the results have been released, any kind of fixing the results can be exposed by the party agents. It is very difficult to do that. It costs a lot of money to get those party agents in polling stations. It is a big infrastructural job, and you can imagine a country like Kenya with 45 thousand polling stations. You want two people in a polling station so that is 90 thousand people you are training. It is also difficult because if there is violence and your ruling party has strongholds it might be almost impossible to physically get your party agents there. But I think that is something that opposition parties need to pay attention to. Because it is the one thing that puts the faith in the elections in their own hands. What that does not deal with are all the invisible strategies that happen ahead of the election that you were talking about. Manipulated electoral register, not allowing opposition supporters to get ID cards so they cannot even get on the register in the first place and other strategies. And then I think one of the things that we could all do is to be much clearer about what is and is not a fair election and to be much stronger in the standards we apply. Because there is a tendency to say that if there is a fraud on the day then it is an unfair election. If there is violence on the day or just before that is an unfree and unfair election. But if there is systematic gerrymandering so the ruling party is electing more MPs than they should be from a small number of votes. If there is systematic disenfranchisement of certain communities. If there is systematic censorship of the media so the opposition cannot get their message out that is also unfree and unfair. And I think we need to start being firm and clear in the early stage of the election campaign that those practices are also unacceptable. And therefore, increasing the stakes of that kind of manipulation which leaders can get away with very low cost. But all of that said, it is a constant struggle. And of the key things I talked about after the Zambian elections is that sometimes for opposition parties to win, they have to win big because they have to win big enough to create a margin. So even if the ruling party rigs by three or four percent they are still the winners. So, whenever I talk to opposition party supporters, I say that if they really want to win, they have to win by five percent or more.

 

Banik                    I think that is a great point. And Zambia is a very good case. The point you make about this tendency we have in the international community among election observes, and there has been so much criticism of international election observes. There is often the tendency to focus on the event, the election day. And to somehow ignore and not have the knowledge to follow what actually happened in the process that led up to this event. So, what would you say about the state of the election observers? What is it they need to do differently now? Because there has been mounting criticism of international election observers and Malawi is a great case where a lot of people have lost faith in these election observers. What should they do differently?

 

Cheeseman           First of all, I want to defend observers a little bit. I work quite closely with international election observers, and we have a new program called Elector where we are trying to bring international and domestic observers, civil society groups, and academics together to have exactly the conversation that you just prompted. We are hoping to bring people together in a genuine partnership. And I think observers do some fantastic work and they have really changed in response to feedback and criticism over the years. We now see long-term observations as a core part of the process. We now see a real focus on explaining the context and so on. And we see a growing recognition of some of the issues you were raising. I would like to see is a couple of other things. If you read a lot of election observation reports, all those long-term issues are actually there and being discussed really well with a lot of sophistication, context, and understanding. But they will not be used as evidence that the election was not good enough quality. We have seen a growing focus on long-term election observation on teaming up with domestic organizations or learning from domestic experts and so on. In terms of being able to provide that long-term political context. What I think we really need to see now from international observers is the response to the challenges and crises of the last two years. And there are two or three ways in which they can do that. One, those long-term contextual factors are much more likely to be included in observation reports now, but not to be used as evidence that there has been manipulation and the election was not good enough. And I think we need to see those issues amplified in terms of the weight they have, and the overall evaluation election observers come to. I think observers moved away from making categorical decisions about whether the elections are OK or not because they did not want to be the only arbiters of that because in most cases these are sliding scales. It is not that election is either perfect or awful, it is almost always somewhere in between. But I think they can still find much stronger language within that about whether the election was good enough. And I think we need to find a different language in which to talk about elections, not just whether they are free and fair or not. But was this a better election than the last one? What is the extent of improvement that is necessary on the basis of this election? I think observers need to be franker and clearer in terms of what their reports actually mean. And I also think we need to support observers to react. One of the things we have seen in the past few years is that elections across Africa and in other parts of the world have become increasingly digital. We have digital voter registration, sometimes digital voter verification, and even digital voting in a small number of cases. And yet we have not supported international election observers in Africa to have the budgets to be able to actually cover all those developments and the developments of social media and the fact that many of those issues that are being shared on social media are being shared in multiple languages. We have not resourced international election groups to the extent they can actually cover all those new development with experts and therefore be able to monitor as if they were a new election frontier. If we want them to do a great job, we also need to resource them to be able to step up to the plate and monitor those new digital processes. And we often imagine digital technologies being the solution to the challenges to democracy and elections. But often they are also the problem and we have seen a number of countries in Africa, including Kenya where I am now, in the 2017 elections the digital process itself became the controversy. Was the digital process hacked? How was it manipulated? Could it be that access to the servers of the electoral commission was then given to the members of the ruling party? So, if we want to bring power and strength to our observers then we need to create a situation where they can monitor those processes effectively. But none of this is going to matter if we do not also empower observation groups to be franker and to speak more clearly. And I have met many members of observation groups over the years that wanted to say something a bit more strong and powerful but have been constrained by the politics going on behind the scenes and the organizations they worked for. And I think international election observations need to really grapple with creating groups that are more genuinely independent and able to speak their minds. Because I do not think in most cases the situation is that the observers on the ground do not know what is going on. In most cases I have been involved in, they do know but there are other reasons they do not come out and declare the election as being deeply problematic. And the final thing to understand where observers are coming from is that it is not an easy decision. If you are in a country where you think declaring the election to be problematic will inspire protests and those protests could be violent. It could even be the case that the international statement that the election was not good enough sparks conflict and leads to loss of life. That is a complicated decision that has major consequences. Most of us do not need to deal with that in our everyday lives. So, I do think there are multiple ways in which international observation can and should improve and get stronger, but I also think that if we are going to help them do that, we need to understand that they are operating within a difficult environment, and they have very difficult decisions to make.

 

Banik                    It was wonderful to chat with you today. Thank you so much for coming to my show.

 

Cheeseman           Absolute pleasure.