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Elections Matter

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on August 20, 2020 16:04

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It used to be that elections served to consult the electorate. Somehow it had become a competition between opposing groups, corporations, personalities. A competition that has to be won. Failure to get elections right can have dire consequences for the stability of countries, societies and regions.

Elections are in the news these days. Worrying allusions of leaders and elites trying to suppress voting, manipulate voting districts, skew results and question the validity of results surface every now and then. From the comfort of established electoral cultures, we might not realize how dangerous these could be to the stability of democracies.

It was July 1996 when my boss called to ask, "What are you doing this weekend?" I had some plans, he had others, and four hours later, pot plants left at a friendly neighbor's door, I was on my way to join a delegation from the then Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to observe Presidential elections in Niger.

The country had a troubled electoral history. The 1995 elections had resulted in a hung parliament and personality clashes between President and Prime Minister. Mired in deep poverty, something had to be done, and Army Chief of Staff Baré Mainassara, French-trained paratrooper and diplomat, took power in January 1996. International pressure, also from the OAU, forced him to hold elections and return to civilian rule.

We arrived in a jubilant atmosphere. On the first day of the elections, we observed crowds of smiling voters, schools converted into polling stations and were told by voters that they hoped the elections would usher in better conditions. In small villages, we saw serious, old men minutely scrutinizing the electoral rolls, pasted at the entrance of the polling station, to ascertain that their next-door neighbors were entitled to vote. Groups gathered under shady trees to decide how they were going to vote.

Waiting to vote. Author's photo

I had dinner with an international NGO member active in voter education. Over a plate of stewed Agouti (a much-prized vegetarian rodent), he confided that the Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) had been starved of resources. We had noticed that, at some polling stations, teachers had provided pencils to mark the ballots. He feared that the military might be sent in to take over the voting.

Civic duty. Author's photo

The next morning, an armored vehicle raced up the road next to our hotel, firing in the air. The military would run the elections. After hours of consultation, we were reassured that our accreditation to CENI was still valid. At the first polling station, tense old men huddled on benches outside the precinct. Camouflage-wearing soldiers stopped me from photographing, and no electoral roll was to be seen. At the close of voting, we tried unsuccessfully to observe counting. At the center of the election, results phoned in were tallied on huge blackboards. Our driver whispered: "The French TV news had just announced the results!" Twenty minutes later, the blackboard caught up. Mainassara had won.

Did this vote count? Author's photo

In April 1999, a member of the Presidential Guard shot Mainassara, an "unfortunate accident," but critics claimed he was fleeing the country.

Niger is still one of the poorest countries in the world. Nobody won.

Coen Van Wyk

Posted on August 20, 2020 16:04

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Source: TIME
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