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In the bad old days of post-colonial Africa, dictators would hail their landslide re-elections as a demonstration of the will of an adoring people while international observers would dismiss the polls as electoral farce.
In the brave new Africa, it is often the other way round.
In Ivory Coast this week, the U.N. mission chief is going out of his way to hail the election as broadly democratic, while both incumbent Laurent Gbagbo and rival Alassane Ouattara have complained the vote has been marred by intimidation of their supporters.
So what is going on? Two things, at least.
Electorates are becoming more sophisticated and literate, although there is still often a big gap between urban and rural voters. Election monitoring, while still a tough job, has also improved. And even the most authoritarian of rulers knows donors will not be best pleased at any sign of meddling with monitors’ work. In Ivory Coast, there is particularly close scrutiny because the poll has costs donors $400 million and they want their money’s worth.
Put simply, it is harder to rig an election these days.
Secondly, much of the international strategy for dealing with post-crisis countries like Ivory Coast or perpetual-crisis countries like neighbouring Guinea rests is based on the hope that democratic elections will make things better.
The fear is that if the election turns out to be a joke, then the strategy falls apart. It is therefore in the interest of the internationals to defend the credibility of the vote.
The presidential race in Ivory Coast is an undeniably tight contest — neither Gbagbo nor Ouattara can hope to achieve the 96.7 percent score achieved last year by Equatorial Guinea’s President Teodoro Obiang Nguema in a much-criticised poll.
In that sense what is playing out in Abidjan at the moment is broadly positive — an attempt to stage a free and fair poll.
Yet what is troubling is the hiatus between the close of polls on Sunday and the announcement of preliminary results not due until Wednesday. The ballots should be pretty much in from the provinces and tallied up by now. So why the wait?
Speculation is inevitably mounting of behind-the-scenes wrangling over the vote. The local diplomatic corps is urging the two candidates to accept whatever result emerges. Perhaps there are well-meaning efforts going on to soften the blow for whomever has lost it — and reduce the risk of trouble.
The next couple of days will show just how ready for democracy Ivory Coast and its leaders really are.