The low bar for African elections

Angola is Exhibit 1,000,003 on how and why the West judge some elections "free and fair," and others not.

Campaign posters and supporters of João Lourenço in Lubango. Image credit: Flickr CC.

Voting is a low bar for measuring democracy. Shenanigans in recent US elections, not to mention low voter turn-out, ought to be enough to make us question just how useful a metric they are. But let someone declare African elections “free and fair” and announce a clear winner, then Western countries will scramble to congratulate the new leader and proclaim the country democratic. And we’re not talking of the West’s favorite African dictatorship, Rwanda. More like Kenya in mid-August or even better: Angola.

Angola’s MPLA came to power after a messy decolonization and the country tipped into a civil war fanned by the Cold War. In 1975 they waited for recognition. That is no longer the case. Then as now, Western endorsement of MPLA rule is more an index of Western interests than of Angolan democracy.

Angolans voted last Wednesday, August 23, 2017 for the fourth time since 1992. The next day the National Electoral Commission (CNE) announced preliminary results that gave the MPLA a victory. On Facebook, some Angolans decried the numbers as oddly similar to elections results from 2012. By Friday, opposition party UNITA and CASA-CE members of the CNE contested those results as illegal (they were not based on a count of votes from voting commissions in municipalities and provinces as the law dictates). Later that day, the CNE announced revised numbers. Opposition parties undertook a parallel counting process using voting returns from polling stations. As of today, no final total vote counts have come out. But you can read the preliminary results here from the CNE.

The international press, despite widespread formal and informal contestation in Angola, has announced the CNE’s Thursday results as if they were true and good. Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa went so far as to congratulate João Lourenço on his victory. This gesture made the watchdog blog Makaangola balk.

The New York Times reported the results and had a small piece on the opposition’s refusal to confirm them. The rest of the English language press only reported the CNE’s announcement. For most of the world and the international press, MPLA victory was a foregone conclusion. This was evident in the questions journalists asked in e-mails and live radio interviews. And it reflects the interests of Western countries in the economy and regarding regional and global security.

Under Ronald Reagan, the US supported Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA. But since recognizing the MPLA government in 1993 under the Clinton administration, the U.S. has maintained good relations with the MPLA. Despite tensions around the question of money laundering, a fact which has kept US banks from selling American dollars to Angolan banks, diplomacy and business have gone well.

In May 2017 then Minister of Defense and MPLA presidential candidate João Lourenço visited Washington DC. Read this transcript from the public announcement of the MOU signed between Angola and the US Department of Defense. It sounds to me like General Mattis is counting on and hoping for Lourenço’s victory. And this interview with the Washington Post (two days before the vote) treated him as the obvious winner in last week’s elections. I could find no similar interviews with opposition party candidates Isaias Samakuva (UNITA) or Abel Chivukuvuku (CASA-CE), both of whom speak excellent English, by the way (not a prerequisite, just an interesting fact).

Rubber stamping the MPLA results is perhaps not surprising for governments whose interests in business and security top the diplomatic agenda. But it is disappointing to see the major wire services and newspapers only echoing that move. In fact, the contestation of the results that has made the CNE backtrack and actually count the votes, public comments by UNITA generals discussing the gravity of war in the face of MPLA threats that disputing results means taking the country back to war, the close electoral monitoring by new civil society organizations like Jiku, and the preliminary results that have come back that show the MPLA losing in Cabinda and with less than 50% of the vote in Luanda is, in fact, big news. And it is the greatest evidence of democracy, i.e. a vibrant and vocal civil society demanding dialogue with the state.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.