New Research: Dynamics of Electoral Authoritarianism in Africa

Since the end of the Cold War, terms like competitive or electoral authoritarian have abounded to describe countries with regular multiparty elections that do not live up to commonly held standards of freedom and fairness. Africa is no exception to this trend, and is home to a significant proportion of electoral authoritarian regimes. Many of these countries have grabbed headlines lately, whether it is the stronger turn towards authoritarianism under John Magufuli in Tanzania, or the continued entrenchment of the Paul Biya regime in Cameroon. 

Yet, despite the prevalence of electoral authoritarianism, not all unfair elections are created equally. A closer look at Africa reveals a range of practices that range from more drastic forms of manipulation like stuffing ballot boxes or arresting political opponents, to less obvious subversionsof the democratic process. These differences reveal very important information, and can tell us something deeper about how authoritarianism is structured and operates.

In my new book How Autocrats Compete, I explore these differences across Africa, and use in-depth case studies of Tanzania, Cameroon, and Kenya. I make the argument that decisions about manipulation in unfair elections are shaped primarily by the ability of autocrats to rely on consistent elite and voter support. The key question is how do autocrats secure this consistent support? A related question is what happens to electoral authoritarian competition if autocrats cannot rely on that consistent support? 

Credible Ruling Parties and Authoritarian Uncertainty

In the book I draw attention to what I call a credible ruling party to explain when an autocrat might manipulate less, but nonetheless win elections decisively. Tanzania provides the prototype for this kind of ruling party. The country’s eminent father figure once wrote, “no party which limits its membership to a clique can ever free itself from fear of overthrow from those it has excluded.” And indeed, for many reasons detailed in the book, the ruling party in Tanzania, CCM and its predecessor TANU, was exceptional and helped mitigate key uncertainties of authoritarian rule.

First, CCM developed an internally coherent party. The party held lively national congresses and competitive primaries for decades before elections were even held. In 1985, Nyerere took the unprecedented step of stepping down and introducing a competitive primary system to select the presidential candidate. These qualities limited a number of tendencies that characterize other autocracies. To succeed, elites had to play by rules. The president, while powerful, had to cede some independent authority to the party. While corruption became a major issue, the party fought to keep its institutional processes intact. 

Second, Nyerere also approached the question of popular support differently. CCM is a remarkably large party, with offices in place for every ten-homes. This put everyday citizens in daily touch with the party. Nyerere also deliberately targeted rural constituencies with public goods, regardless of their ethnicity. This fostered a relationship with the ruling party that did not depend on the identity of the person in charge, but the continued presence of the party in power. 

Both factors influenced how CCM contested elections in the multiparty era. In my research I show how CCM elites express fewer grievances and are less likely to defect than in other countries. The party frequently inserts itself into local disputes, especially during contentious nomination processes. Crucially, the presidential primary system has neutralized a key source of tension – succession. This was clear in 2015 when several presidential candidates, including the frontrunner Edward Lowassa, were removed from consideration due to violations of the party’s bylaws. While Lowassa defected, few other elites joined him.

My research also shows that CCM’s popular mobilization strategies have paid off. CCM keeps a general rural electoral edge, but it wins particularly big in areas that benefitted from a specific phase of economic planning in the 1970s. Opposition parties often make reference to the closed mindset of voters from these areas. This is quite different from other African electoral authoritarian regimes, where autocrats could only rely on their co-ethnics for support. 

These features of the Tanzanian case meant that the regime could contest elections with greater ex ante guarantees of electoral victory, and therefore did not have to manipulate elections as heavily. The regime could rely on an extensive cadre of elite support that was invested in the long-term survival of the party, and could mobilize a significant proportion of the populace based on their historical record of distributing government services and goods to them.

Electoral Authoritarian Competition without Guarantees

Credible ruling parties such as CCM are rare. In the book I note Mozambique, Senegal, and Seychelles as comparative examples. However, more often than not regimes are left with fewer institutional guarantees. In these cases, electoral authoritarian regimes are much more dependent on the traditional tools of autocracy – repression and cooptation. In these cases the outcome is much more predisposed toward more overt and stark manipulation of the electoral process, which also means that the utility of these strategies is less certain. 

In Cameroon we find a regime that has been in place essentially since independence, but entered the multiparty era without a credible ruling party. As expected, Cameroon’s initial experience with elections was turbulent. Many elites defected from the ruling party, and cited the opaque standards for candidacy. Likewise, the ruling party relied heavily on the backing of voters from Paul Biya’s co-ethnics in the center and south. The ruling CPDM and Biya eked by with a paper-thin victory, and amidst heavy condemnationof the electoral process by international observers. 

However, since that foundational election in 1992, Cameroon’s electoral authoritarian regime has rebuilt political support. In October last year, Paul Biya entered his 36thyear in office with over 70% of the vote, and the ruling party currently holds 78% of the legislative seats. Does this mean that repressive strategies are effective in the long-term? 

My answer is that only under specific conditions. Cameroon has deployed a wide range of manipulative processes without much international pushback. In fact, I argue that Cameroon has been the beneficiary of authoritarian international patronage, primarily from the French, but also from the United States. These actors have shielded the regime from the downsides of repression, provided critical financial assistance, and used rhetoric to maintain Cameroon’s public image. Relatedly, opposition parties in Cameroon have had few opportunities to build their international reputation. 

Some examples help to make this point. Compared to Tanzania, Cameroon has garnered far less international attention during its elections, and has some of the least observed elections on the continent. Compared to the average African country, Cameroon has liberalized much less of its economy and has maintained nearly 50% of its state-owned enterprises. This was accomplished due to French financial assistance during periods of economic crisis. Cameroon is also not a frequent subject of international discourse, and maintains a key role in France’s international relations and the United States’ War on Terror. 

Why Understanding How Autocrats Compete is Important

There are a few lessons about authoritarianism that the book provides. First, we should not conflate a seemingly less repressive election with a greater propensity toward democracy. In fact, a historically less repressive electoral regime like Tanzania might signal a more confident regime. The recent deterioration in political conditions in Tanzania seems shocking because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what the regime was like before John Magufuli’s election. 

Second, the book tells us that the nature of institutions created by autocrats have consequences. Arguably, Tanzania’s credible ruling party provides it with more legs to stand on, and an ability to prevent challenges rather than just react to them. The growing repression in Tanzania since 2015 is actually indicative of challenges to the traditional factors that have sustained the regime. By contrast, Cameroon has tied continued to tie innovations in its repressive capacity to the international arena. Specifically, the 2014 Anti-Terror lawwas passed to ostensibly combat Boko Haram, but is now a tool used to stifle political discourse. 

We need to be careful when we assess terms like “authoritarian stability” by referring simply to an autocrat’s time in office. It is crucial to look under the hood and appreciate how power is exercised in authoritarian regimes, and to grasp the real diversity of authoritarian institutions and politics.  


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