West Africa: 'Electoral Reforms' Are Stifling Democracy in West Africa

analysis

In the past two years, several West African countries have enacted electoral laws and regulations that make running for political office more difficult. Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Niger and Senegal have either increased the registration fees that aspiring candidates must pay or mandated that contenders need other political actors' endorsement.

At first glance, these reforms seem motivated by the need to improve elections and democracy. In some countries, the shift from single to multi-party systems has led to a proliferation of political parties. In such cases, governments say the changes are necessary filters to improve the political offerings for presidential and legislative elections.

But restricting political participation contradicts the spirit of democracy and limits the options for renewing a country's leadership. These barriers belie the principle of citizens' equal access to political office.

The other new requirement that elected officials endorse candidates implies that political newcomers cannot run unless vetted by their adversaries. Both sets of measures benefit the political establishment at the expense of new generations and aspirants with less access to power and resources, such as women and youth.

Given recent trends in West Africa and elsewhere on the continent, where governments have amended their countries' constitutions to hang onto power, the sincerity of these electoral reforms is doubtful.

Requiring candidates' endorsement by elected officials means newcomers are vetted by their adversaries

In Burkina Faso, the January 2020 review of the electoral law requires candidates to be endorsed by at least 50 elected officials. When sponsors are municipal councillors, they must be located in at least seven of the country's 13 regions.

In Senegal, the amended 2019 electoral law saw a more than five-fold increase in the number of citizens' endorsements needed - from 10 000 to 52 000. Those giving their backing must come from at least seven different regions of the country. This condition resulted in the constitutional council rejecting 75% of candidates, validating only seven of the 27 they received in 2019. The lack of consensus on the proposed reform led to protests by opposition forces.

In Benin, article 132 of the 2019 electoral code requires candidates to be validated by 10% of the country's parliamentarians or mayors. This percentage sounds small, but the ruling party dominates the National Assembly and local councils following the controversial 2019 elections that excluded opposition parties.

These developments raise serious concerns about opposition parties' ability to compete freely in the April 2021 presidential elections. Some opposition leaders told ISS Today that they disagreed with a system that forced them to 'negotiate with' or 'beg' the ruling party to allow their participation in elections.

Regulations increase the risk of corruption and normalise the value of money over beneficial policies

In Guinea, article 42 of the constitution adopted in April 2020 compelled presidential candidates to seek endorsements. However, the law failed to define clear implementation measures, forcing the Constitutional Court to put it on hold for the 2020 presidential elections. Contenders also have to pay high filing fees, which creates a financial barrier to running for office - a fundamental civic and political right.

In Niger, the law requires endorsements for independent candidates only, who need 20 000 citizen approvals in at least five regions out of eight. All those running for president must pay CFA 25 000 000 (€38 000) to join the race. This cost is almost 1 000 times the average salary in one of the world's poorest countries.

The issue isn't new to Niger, where candidates' financial threshold has changed several times over the years. An initial CFA 20 000 000 (€30 000) demanded by the 2010 electoral law was halved in 2014 to support citizens' eligibility rights. But before the 2020-21 elections, the government raised it to CFA 25 000 000 - higher than ever. Out of 30 contenders, 10 couldn't pay the fees, and their applications were rejected.

In Burkina Faso and Mali, the fees are fixed at CFA 25 000 000. Guinean candidates are required to pay CFA 65 000 000 (€100 000). Benin appears to be the most expensive country for presidential aspirants, with a CFA 250 000 000 (€380 000) filing fee. This is a massive increase from the CFA 6 000 000 (€10 000) previously required.

In all these countries, opposition parties and civil society actors have criticised these measures as attempts by governments and ruling parties to constrict the democratic space and extend their stay in power.

Governments need to revisit the rules that regulate the political space beyond electoral times

In some of the world's poorest countries, these requirements are more akin to plutocracies than democracies. The regulations also increase the risk of corruption in politics and normalise the value of money over policies that benefit society during elections.

To consolidate democracy, substantial institutional reforms are needed. West African countries need policies that guide political parties' creation and activities and spell out the requirements for effective internal democratic functioning, funding and membership.

Improving political party governance could help ensure that people filing candidatures are credible when election time comes. This offers a more democratic and sustainable alternative to barring them from competing down the line. Governments also need to refrain from shaping the rules to their advantage.

It is imperative to protect and preserve the credibility, independence and impartiality of electoral bodies. Consistent voter education is also crucial. Such initiatives offer social and political filters through which leaders can be chosen without the manipulation of elections.

Rather than imposing last-minute restrictions that destabilise the playing field ahead of elections, governments need to revisit the rules that regulate the political space beyond voting time.

David Zounmenou, Senior Research Consultant, ISS Dakar and Nadia Adam, Research Officer, ISS Bamako

This article was produced with support from the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, the Hanns Seidel Foundation and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands.

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