The troublesome politics of election pacts

Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete on the campaign trail. A divided opposition proved no match for his second term bid. FILE |AFRICA REVIEW 

As the battle lines are drawn in the lead-up to Zambia’s 2011 election, wellwishers hoping for a pact between the two leading opposition parties - Michael Sata’s Patriotic Front (PF) and Hakaimbe Hichilema’s United Party for Democratic Development (UPDP) - surely faced the politics of disappointment when each party went their separate ways earlier this month.

Similar alliances during the country’s 2001 elections met a similar fate, handing the reigning Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) an election victory with a mere 28 per cent of the votes cast in the National Assembly and presidential elections. When looking at multiparty elections throughout Africa, the deals struck between opposition parties when strategically agreeing to field common election candidates, are more often than not doomed from the very start.

Yet, broad-based coalitions are perhaps the only route to success in first-past-the-post elections, where election winners take it all. This route was successfully charted in the astounding victory of the National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) in Kenya’s 2002 election or Zambia’s first post-reform election of 1991, where the MMD’s broad-based coalition swept away the country's long-time incumbent, Mr Kenneth Kaunda and the United National Independence Party (Unip).

Today in Uganda, it looks like Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) might face a similar opposition threat, as the Inter-Party Cooperative (IPC) has agreed to field Kizza Besigye as their common presidential contender in the country’s 2011 elections.

Character assassinations

Uganda’s election is still, however, some two months away. And, while election pacts routinely offer food for punditry, they in fact rarely live long enough to see the light of election day. It took two elections – one in 1992 and another one in 1997 - before the disputes and character assassinations within Kenya’s opposition parties gave way to the alliance that stunningly defeated Kanu in 2002.

More recently, in Tanzania’s fourth multiparty elections, talk of an opposition alliance went nowhere. In the course towards Nigeria’s 2011 elections, the two prospective electoral alliances - the Patriotic Electoral Alliance of Nigeria (PEAN) and the Coalition for a New Nigeria (CNN) are on life support due to their inability to agree on a common candidate. In addition to Museveni’s bid, Uganda’s IPC faces six other presidential contenders and is still struggling to find mutually agreeable candidates for a handful of parliamentary contests and Kampala’s mayoral race.

One might think that pacts between opposition parties, with apparently catch-all platforms, would be a pretty easy exercise. But, ideology has very little to do with the politics of pact formation and disintegration. Instead, the forces that push parties and candidates apart have more to do with differences over who will emerge as the collective presidential aspirant.

Despite Mr Sata’s claims that differences in ideology was driving a wedge between the PF and the UPDP, public exchanges between the two camps clearly indicate that the wedge was each candidate’s unyielding belief that they alone were the best man for the job. During Tanzania’s most recent election, party chairman and presidential aspirant for the Civic United Front (CUF) – Prof Ibrahim Lipumba - said it best when claiming to embrace the idea of an electoral alliance with other opposition parties, yet insisting that he would be the best candidate for the job.

Personal risks

Of course, this self-assured tone and reluctance to cooperate is understandable, although not necessarily justifiable. Opposition aspirants – and often their families - sacrifice an enormous amount of time, energy and wealth and sometimes face considerable personal risks when building their candidacies. Wanting to see some sort of reward for these investments is not at all surprising. At the same time, one wonders whether or not these personal investments coincide with personal senses of entitlement to the candidacy, if not the political office itself.

Opposition rivalries and the failure of pacts are complicated by the fact that so many opposition parties – either out of reluctance of the party leaders, or out of the lack of financing – are wholly undemocratic internally. The ability to democratically select a common candidate out from an ad-hoc electoral alliance, is even less promising. In Uganda, for example, the IPC’s decision to “handpick” candidates rather than hold nationwide primaries has been entirely heavy-handed and highly turbulent. While the democratic selection of party or pact candidates might not change the sense of entitlement, the aura of popular legitimacy that comes with democratic elections might make it more costly for politicians to defect from cooperation when the political landscape looks less favourable to their personal interests.

In some cases, the failure of opposition pacts probably has as much to do with the tactics adopted by the incumbents as it does with questions of candidacy entitlement and internal decision-making mechanisms. Through a combination of ethnic violence and promises of patronage during Kenya’s first two multiparty elections, Moi laboured to create an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and mistrust that sowed lasting discord among some of the country’s opposition leaders. In Cameroon’s 1992 election, Paul Biya managed to win by a mere 40 per cent of the votes cast, thanks to his efforts in keeping the opposition’s frontrunners divided.

Presidential systems

In Zambia today, the continual MMD claims about ongoing pact discussions between it and the UPND might be seen as the incumbent’s simultaneous attempts to pick off a few opposition supports, while helping to undermine any sense of trust that might be existing between the UPND and other opposition parties.

Only a handful of African countries use some proportional representation variant – including Benin, Cape Verde and Mauritius. Even fewer combine proportional representation with an actual parliamentary democracy. Instead, presidential systems and first-past-the-post elections are the continent’s most common method for electing public officials.

These election methods necessitate forming broad-based electoral coalitions in order to secure majorities large enough to win. However, so long as incumbent politicians are willing to foment divisions and opposition politicians are unwilling to share the election stage, election pacts will continue to be the exception rather than the norm.

-Dr Whitehead the writer currently works as a private research and publishing consultant.

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