Persistence is the key to the United States becoming a more effective partner in supporting democratic development in Africa, a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing was told this week. The continent has seen significant democratic gains in recent years, said Patrick Merloe, senior associate and director of election programs at the National Democratic Institute,* addressing a hearing on democracy support strategies, chaired by Congressmen Chris Smith and Dan Donovan on May 18, held against the backdrop of both democratic progress and democratic backsliding on the African continent:
Nigeria’s successful elections last year ushered in the country’s first peaceful transition of political power between political parties. Cote d’Ivoire also experienced a successful election in 2015 — a remarkable turnaround from tragic post-electoral violence just two years earlier. Kenya has seen significant progress toward democratic consolidation since 2010 political reforms ultimately led to successful elections in 2013. In all three examples, international assistance played an important role in helping to strengthen and legitimize electoral processes.
Despite these positive stories, a troubling trend of African leaders changing constitutions to preserve their own grip on political power threatens to undermine democratic gains. In his testimony, Merloe underscored that elections are an essential but insufficient condition for democracy. “Elections must be viewed as an essential part of broader political dynamics, not isolated from them,” he said:
Effective democracy assistance must view democracy not as an event but as a process that extends throughout the breadth of the electoral cycle and takes into account contextual factors that might subvert credible and peaceful elections. This approach, Merloe emphasized, “highlights the multiple, long-term processes that begin far before election day, continue after it, and even connect up to subsequent elections. Indeed, the pre- and post-elections are critical and merit increased attention.”
“To ensure that elections can resolve peacefully the competition for governmental office and ensure that the will of the people provides the authority and legitimacy for government, at least three principles need to be reinforced in all electoral assistance: inclusiveness, transparency, and accountability,” Merloe emphasized.
* A core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.