With tears streaming down his cheeks, Vladmir Putin outgoing Prime Minister and now President-elect of Russia declared with great conviction, that his victory in the just concluded presidential elections was the outcome of an “open and honest battle”. While his speech attracted cheers and ovation from many supporters, members of the opposition like prominent anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, claim that Putin shed crocodile tears out of fear of public backlash from elections marred by irregularities. Not surprisingly, the international media has placed the Russian elections in the spotlight albeit with a cynical slant of how they were skewed heavily in favour of an easy Putin victory over other candidates. In all this, African observers like me on the fringe cannot help wondering if half of the critical scrutiny were directed towards elections in many Sub Saharan African countries, where it is needed most, then perhaps there might be considerable improvements in aspects of our electoral democracy in Africa.
Of course it will be naive to dismiss the importance of Russia as a major global player. Despite the collapse and disintegration of the defunct Soviet Republic into present day Russia and several other countries and its downgrade from a near equal of the US during the Cold War era Russia to middle income, developing country status, Russia is still the largest country in the world in terms of land mass; it has a huge population; it is one of the five permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and one of the BRICS. Russia is a major player in geo politics especially due to its typically diametric stance with many Western countries on key issues in international security such as Iran’s nuclear activity. Thus, elections in Russia are bound to attract global attention and scrutiny compared to say, elections in Malawi, Gambia or Cameroon.
That said, the victory of Putin in the elections came as no surprise to any keen observer of events in Russia, whom it is widely believed was the real power wielder as Prime Minister to Dmitry Medvedev. According to a poll conducted in September 2009 by the Levada Center in which 1,600 Russians took part, 13% believed Medvedev held the most power, 32% Putin, and 48% both. Nevertheless, Putin’s overbearing influence and authority pale into insignificance in comparison with some of our octogenarian, yet energetic African despots – the Wades, the Biyas and the Mugabes. Incumbent President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal for instance, despite being well over 85 years old and having exhausted his constitutionally permitted term limits, went to great lengths to ensure he contested in the February 26th 2012 Presidential elections. Wade altered the constitution in 2011 to enable him contest for a third term, and banned some rival candidates like Grammy award-winning singer Youssou N’dour from contesting. Wade’s violent crackdown on mass protests that trailed his refusal to back down which led to deaths of innocent, unarmed civilians betray his desperation to cling to power against popular will, willing to risk to his democratic credentials as a democratic reformer, jeopardizing the stability and cohesion of Senegal which has been a beacon of democratic stability in the region. Wade remains adamant despite entreaties by other African strong-men like former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo who have tested, tried and given up on the tenure elongation bid.
Certainly Putin’s strong-man tactics, “creeping authoritarianism”, and manipulation of the political system comes nowhere near Wade’s open secretive plans of paving the way for his son to ascend the Presidency once he secures his re-election bid constitutionally or extra-constitutionally. Nor does it compare with Joseph Kabila’s blatant nepotism in ensuring that his twin sister and brother were both elected to the parliament of the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2012 in elections described as flawed and “chaotic” by local and international observers.
The criticism of the presidential elections in Russia stem from procedural and “voting irregularities” which ensured Putin’s victory was secured by fair or foul means, mostly the latter in the eyes of the international media, international election observers and Western governments. These irregularities included the “limited electoral choice” for the electorate according to Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors, “the conditions under which the campaign was conducted, the partisan use of government resources and procedural irregularities on election day” according to the official US statement, the dominance of the media and campaign space by Putin to the detriment of other candidates, and heavy handed tactics by the security forces towards those protesting the results. Despite analysts’ and pundits’ claims that the margin of Putin’s victory was inflated and about 50% and not the 64% of the vote, it will by no means compare to the audacious inflation of figures in some parts of Nigeria during the 2011 Presidential elections. Some states in the South-East and South-South – the incumbent’s home base – recorded between 86%, according to the EU election monitors and up to 98% voter turn-out, a near impossibility in elections as the highest possible turn-out for the most enthusiastic and politically conscious electorate is usually pegged by political scientists at around 60 to 70%.
Of course this does not excuse the irregularities or manipulation of the electoral system by Putin as there is room for substantial improvement. Putin also stressed the need for a thorough investigation of all election violations. However, even the critics credit the Russian government for marginal improvements in elections in Russia. The US government acknowledged the Russian government’s efforts to reform the system while the French foreign minister in his reaction to Putin’s victory stated: “The election was not exemplary … [but] … there was no brutal repression during the campaign, as might have been the case in other times,”. In addition, the installation of 200,000 webcams at polling booths to prevent ballot stuffing and the ability of citizens to engage in peaceful protests are an indication of the improvements in the Russian public sphere unlike what obtained earlier.
However, the key point here is that more countries around the world require this scrutiny and critical dissection of the electoral system which perhaps might propel their respective governments to conduct relatively credible elections at least that would meet minimum international standards. If the elections and “election-like events” in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa even measured-up to the standard of the Russian elections, warts and all, then many of our political problems might be more manageable. Many African incumbents and closet autocrats get away with the farce and caricature of elections which consolidate their firm grip on power because they are able to escape the radar in their nefarious activities. For instance, with the little media attention the 2011 elections in Cameroon received, how many can even recall that Paul Biya, the autocrat in civilian garb (infamously nicknamed “The Sphinx”) has firmly held onto the reins of power in Cameroon for about 30 years, deftly succeeding himself in every election?
Clearly, there is undue emphasis on the elections in Russia to the detriment of elections in other Southern countries in the world, especially in Sub Saharan Africa where such attention, scrutiny and spotlight by the international community might actually assist civil society groups and activists in pressurising African leaders to embark on genuine electoral reforms. This is because there is a wide held view that many African leaders hardly respond to the demands of their electorate alone, so this international media scrutiny could assist civil society groups in this regard.