The U.S. Elections, Political System andAfrica
By Cassandra R. Veney and Paul TiyambeZeleza
Special to USAfricaonline.com
TheBlack Business Journal
The American people and many other people throughout the world havebeen on a political roller coaster following the 2000 U.S.presidential election and after more than two weeks later, there hadbeen no declared winner. What have Americans learned from thisimportant component of democracy and what can Africa learn from thisas many countries continue on their roads toward achievingsustainable democracies? There are several lessons that both groupscan learn from the other.
First, it is important for Americansto realize and understand that America was never meant to be a truedemocracy by the founding fathers. If it were, they would have notfound it necessary to create the electoral college. Democracy tothese few wealthy, white, educated, elite males was for them and themalone. They never intended the masses of people, e.g., white women,slaves, Native Americans, and white men who did not own property toparticipate in their democracy. Therefore, the first important lessonto learn from this is that America has been moving towardestablishing a democracy for all of its people following theratification of the constitution in 1789. The masses of Americans whowe witnessed participating in the election and their subsequentprotests surrounding the ballot counts in Florida were events thatthe founding fathers could never have fathomed.
What was the most satisfying and reaffirming aspect of theelection and its aftermath is the visibility and participation of allAmericans in the process in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, andclass, although of course the candidacies themselves were bankrolledby the rich and powerful. The fact that America has come a long wayfrom 1789 was manifested by the difference African American votersmade in many closely contested constituencies including Florida. Socritical was this vote that in such cities as Chicago AfricanAmerican funeral directors donated their cars to transport voters tothe polls. Even the homeless people in Milwaukee who were providedtransportation to the polls, regardless of the alleged free cigaretteinducement provided by the Democrats, are a testament that manypreviously disenfranchised people are hungry for democracy in thiscountry. The point is that the establishment and implementation ofdemocracy do not happen overnight. In all societies these are ongoingprocesses marked by divisions and cleavages and the emergence offactions. Often, these factions will look out for their own interestsand any attempt by others to participate in democracy is viewed as athreat to their interests. Therefore, they will attempt to preventany effort by the disenfranchised to participate in democracy,especially in terms of voting.
There has been a number of reported irregularities in thepresidential election which can neither be ignored nor minimized. Anysubstantiated evidence of tampering with ballots, miscountingballots, or not allowing qualified voters from casting their ballotsis not just wrong, it is unconstitutional and should not betolerated. Putting the reported irregularities aside, states nolonger engage in the use of poll taxes, the grandfather clause,citizenship tests, literacy tests, and blatant violence andintimidation to prevent some of their citizens from voting. We shouldbear in mind that as late as 1965, the majority of African Americanscould not register to vote because they disproportinately lived inthe south where most states still used these structural barriers toprevent them from voting. It was never the federal government thatprevented African Americans and members of other racial minoritygroups from voting. It was the states that made these structuralbarriers a part of their constitutions. Because of Congressionallegislation and Supreme Court decisions, these "discretionary" powershave been taken from the states.
This leads us to another observation from the election. Althoughthe federal government has gained considerable leverage over thestates in recent years in terms of providing federal funds to statesfor schools, highways, and other infrastructure and in severalSupreme Court rulings that provide for one person, one vote, thefederal nature of the government and the power of the states weremade clearer to the average person. The controversy over the Floridaballot is an illustration that the voting machinery is still leftentirely up to the states which means that something like theconvoluted butterfly ballot in Florida which apparently caused manyvoters so much confusion may withstand constitutional scrutiny. TheBoard of Canvassing (electoral commission) in Florida, the deadlinefor the receipt and counting of absentee ballots, and thecertification of ballot counts by the Florida Secretary of State areall demonstrations that states still have power in this federalsystem concerning presidential elections, although the Supreme Courthas judicial review over all state laws.
Finally, perhaps one of the most interesting observations from theelection is that America and Americans do have one political culturedespite the existence of numerous sub-political cultures foundthroughout the country which exist for many reasons. For example, itmakes sense that some groups in society who experienceddiscrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, and language willhave different attitudes, values, beliefs, and orientations towardparts of the political system or the role of the political system.The core political culture has been most evident in terms ofrespecting the rule of law. The Democrats and Republicans have takento the streets and airwaves to hurl insults at each other, but noviolence has occurred. There has been no fundamental discussion ofviolently dismantling the entire system and starting from scratch,although there has been much debate and discussion over the utilityof the electoral college. There has been no discussion of allowingPresident Clinton to continue in office if the popular vote does notmatch the electoral vote. There is no speculation that PresidentClinton will annul the election results if Vice President Gore doesnot win Florida. Most importantly, there has never been any mentionof the military assuming power &endash; it is a part of the politicalculture that the military is subservient to civil authority. When allis said and written about the 2000 Presidential election, it is hopedthat the Americans' unwillingness to engage in violence regardless ofwho wins the election, their respect for the rule of law, and theirpatience in waiting for the final outcome, which demonstrates theirbelief and faith in an imperfect system, will be what is rememberedmost about this election.
Africans have alternately been baffled, bemused, and beguiled bythis apparently inconclusive election. The sight of a supposedlydemocratic and technological superpower unable to count votesproperly has been a source of both ridicule and relief,incomprehension, and concern. As one African paper put it, bothfriends and foes of the United States have found it difficult toresist poking fun at the Hollywood-style confusion in the world'sself-appointed beacon of democratic elections and orderlytransitions. The tales of missing ballot boxes, intimidated voters,endless legal challenges, and accusations of stealing the presidencysounded eerily familiar to weary voters in many of Africa's fledglingdemocracies. Everybody could recognize the script: the self-declaredwinner, the rather lackluster son of a man who was both formerpresident and head of the intelligence police and who had beendethroned by a close ally of his son's opponent some years before,received fewer votes nationally than his opponent but claimed victorybecause he won a few hundred more votes in a province run by hisyounger brother!
Thus the fact that winning the popular vote was not enough forGore to capture the presidency was hardly news, except perhaps manyAfricans heard of the arcane powers of the electoral college for thefirst time. What was news was that Chad was no longer just an Africancountry, but a mysterious object on the ballot paper that came invarious forms &endash; dimpled, pregnant, hanging, swinging &endash;on whose shape hung the presidency. Gleeful cartoonists andeditorialists have cheekily suggested that African governments, soexperienced in matters of electoral muddle and manipulation, sendelection observers to help sort out the electoral mess in theSunshine State of Florida, the home of Mickey Mouse as a Nigerianpaper reminded its readers.
While most African leaders have refrained from commenting directlyand publicly on this electrifying electoral drama, for some not evenprotocol has been enough to suppress their derision. Former Zambianpresident Kenneth Kaunda observed that Americans "have always sent toAfrica former presidents like Jimmy carter as election monitors.Perhaps it is time for Africa also to send former presidents likemyself to monitor the process." More ruefully, Jonathan Moyo, theofficial prevaricator of Zimbabwe's embattled government which riggedits 2000 elections through pre-election violence, claimed in a BBCradio interview that in comparison with the US, Zimbabwe's electionswere exemplary. "Maybe it's time for Americans to learn from us. Doesit make sense to win a popular vote but lose an election?" Thepro-government media in Côte d'Ivoire, another country with aviolently disputed election in 2000 also found cause for rejoicing,proclaiming in the words of Fraternite Matin: "Since the UnitedStates has failed to set a bright example of a good ballot countingsystem, it is exciting to note that great America is now in the samecrab basket as most countries in Africa."
But even for commentators without axes to grind, the US electoralfiasco exploded the myth of American, and by extension, Westerndemocracy. To some this was a source of deep gratification, anindictment of American political arrogance, a confirmation that acountry founded on slavery and where people of African descentcontinue to be oppressed and marginalized cannot be fully democratic.The staggering amounts of money spent on the elections before andafter polling day, easily outstripping the budgets of many Africancountries, but without half the country even bothering to vote,seemed to provide ample testimony to the critics that this systempanders to the highest bidder and primarily serves selected vestedinterests dominated by the rich. In short, those who have alwaysquestioned the prospects of Africa learning from Western democracyeither because they believe that the continent does not needdemocracy or that it ought to brew its own homegrown variety feltvindicated.
So far, it would seem that it is the detractors of democracy whostand to gain from the US electoral malfeasance, at least in theshort term. It gives succor to Africa's dictators who can now claimthat if election irregularities are normal even in the world'srichest nation it is unfair to hold their poor countries tounrealistically high standards of electoral performance. ThusWashington's influence on matters relating to elections, democracyand good governance in Africa and other parts of the South may bediminished. But the real danger is not that Africa's wily tyrantshave been given new ammunition to question American electoraldemocracy and diplomacy and election monitoring by westerngovernments and agencies in general, on whose back regional andnational election monitors often ride, but to discredit democracy ingeneral. It is for this reason that some acute observers haveexpressed the fear that when all the laughter at the US electoralshenanigans is over Africa's already fragile democracies may be theloser. In the words of the Dakar-based Le Matin, "the most crazyelections in American history are bad news for democracy inAfrica."
At stake, then, is not simply a question of who is better forAfrica, Bush or Gore, the Republicans or Democrats, although ofcourse the foreign and African policies of the two parties differslightly, but how African leaders, opinion makers, and voters readinto what has happened in the US elections. There is of course no wayof predicting that. From the popular press both within and outsidethe continent, it would seem that many Africans have been impressedby the fact that the ardent supporters of Gore and Bush have limitedtheir inflamed passions to verbal acrimony and protest rallies ratherthan physical violence. This disclosure of America's politicalfallibility might be a blessing in disguise if Africans learn thatelectoral contestation, however bitter, does not have to beaccompanied by violence, let alone provide an excuse for the militaryto strike.
Even more would be achieved if the American election crisis couldhelp remove Africa's burden of imitation, the notion that thecontinent is eternally doomed to importing progressive practices andinstitutions from abroad, and embolden African democrats to designmore democratic and effective electoral and governance systems fortheir own countries. The political and legal maneuvers surroundingthe US election clearly show that the entire system from the countyelectoral commissions to the courts is permeated by partisanship.This compares quite unfavorably with the apparent neutrality andaccountability of electoral commissions and processes in some ofAfrica's functioning democratic states. Certainly it shows theweaknesses of winner-take-all politics, which effectivelydisenfranchises large groups of people, or even overrides the will ofthe majority of the voters as has happened in the current USelection.
Perhaps the most important consequence of the 2000 Americanpresidential election for Africa is that it may have put to rest thenotion that there is a democratic system out there which Africa canimport as a turnkey project. It reinforces the plea by some ofAfrica's most perceptive philosophers and political scientists toexplore political systems that go beyond the marjoritarian democracyof winner-take-all multipartyism, and devise ones that are inspiredfrom progressive African traditions of what some have calledconsensual governance as well as the aspirations embodied incontemporary struggles for human rights. In short, systems that seekto provide, protect, and promote the participation in power of allcitizens regardless of the peculiarities of their variousaffiliations and associations. Clearly such a system does not yetexist even in America. That is the challenge that confronts alldemocracy loving people wherever they may be in Florida or BurkinaFaso.
Veney is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Illinois StateUniversity, Normal, Illinois and while Zeleza is Professor of Historyand African Studies and Director, Center for African Studies at theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Both are contributingeditors of USAfricaonline.com and USAfrica The Newspaper.
These views were stated during an interview CNN's anchor Bernard Shaw and senior analyst Jeff Greenfield had with Mr. Nwangwu on Saturday November 18, 2000 during a special edition of 'Inside Politics 2000.'
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