The media have already done their various “best of 2018” stories, but in electoral terms the year is still going, with two big elections held yesterday – neither of them, unfortunately, a good example of democracy.
Bangladesh’s election is at least complete. There’s no sign of figures at the electoral commission’s website (anyone who can read Bengali is welcome to search), but media reports all agree on a landslide victory for incumbent prime minister Sheikh Hasina, in office for the last ten years.
Hasina’s Awami League has won 259 of the 300 directly-elected seats, and its allies have won another 29. Only seven seats went to the opposition Jatiya Oikya Front, whose main component is the Awami League’s historic rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.
A further 50 seats are reserved for women, to be allocated in proportion to party shares of the vote. Without voting figures it’s impossible to say how they will go, but presumably the opposition will do noticeably better. The directly-elected seats, as per the time-honored British pattern, are all single-member first-past-the-post.
The government’s win is no surprise at all. There are numerous reports of dubious electoral practices and a climate of intimidation of opposition supporters. The BNP (which boycotted the last election, five years ago) has denounced the results and demanded that the election be re-run. Not least of the many disadvantages it faced was the fact that its leader, Khaleda Zia, is in jail for corruption.
Broadly speaking, the Awami League is centre-left and more secular, while the BNP is centre-right and closer to the religious parties. Since Bangladeshi independence in 1971 they have mostly alternated in power, not always by democratic means.
While Bangladesh remains a poor country with many serious problems, Hasina has had a number of achievements in office, and it is by no means improbable that she would win a fair election. This, however, is clearly not it.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Bangladesh seems almost like a model democracy, however, when compared with the other country holding elections yesterday, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The DRC is the largest country by area in sub-Saharan Africa, and potentially one of the wealthiest. But its history has been blighted by kleptocratic and downright genocidal rulers, starting with king Leopold II of Belgium, who ran the country in the nineteenth century as a private business venture powered by slave labor.
The overthrow of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 produced a rare moment of hope, but the rebel leader who replaced him, Laurent Kabila, went on to institute his own cult of personality. In 2001 he was assassinated and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila, who was confirmed in office by somewhat dubious presidential elections in 2006 and 2011.
Kabila’s term was supposed to end in 2016, and term limits prevent him from running again. But the 2016 election was repeatedly postponed, until it was finally – sort of – held yesterday.
Organising a national election in such a huge country with negligible infrastructure is a nightmare. The BBC reports “a chaotic electoral process,” but also says that “in general voters seemed motivated and glad this historic day finally took place.” Voting in three cities was postponed until March; the electoral commission blamed security issues and an ebola outbreak, but it’s probably not coincidental that they are reported to be strong opposition districts.
The DRC has a semi-presidential system, with a directly-elected president as well as a prime minister responsible to the legislature. There are 21 presidential candidates, but only four who seem serious contenders: Emmanuel Shadary, formerly interior minister, who represents the governing People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, and three opposition candidates, Félix Tshisekedi, Martin Fayulu and Vital Kamerhe.
Voting is simple first-past-the-post, so this sort of division among the opposition could easily be fatal. Nonetheless, an opinion poll two months ago showed Tshisekedi with a comfortable lead, 36% to 17% for Kamerhe, 16% for Shadary and 8% for Fayulu. There’s little doubt about the population’s desire for change; the question is whether the system will give effect to it.
It’s quite possible that if Kabila had held the election two years ago, when discontent was not so well developed and international attention was minimal, he could have got his chosen successor elected (or “elected”) without much fuss. That will now be much more difficult.
Further reports to follow when results appear: and watch for my review of 2018 later this week.