The Curse of Low Expectations

Lessons for democracy from Madagascar's election.


On Oct. 25, Madagascar — one of the poorest countries in the world — held its first election since a 2009 coup d’état. The first round of elections were lauded abroad as "free and fair," and many anticipated a smooth transition to democracy. But just one month later, on Nov. 22, current President Andry Rajoelina conducted what some have called a "partial coup," in which he sacked a third of the country’s regional governors and replaced them with loyal military officers.

Madagascar’s "free and fair" elections were severely flawed from the start, with mass disenfranchisement and uneven media coverage. But because international election monitors used such rosy rhetoric, these defects were left unchecked — fostering favorable conditions for instability and corruption heading toward the Dec. 20 second round vote. 

Madagascar’s road to democracy has been a rocky one ever since the 34-year-old Rajoelina (a radio DJ-turned-mayor) unseated Marc Ravalomanana (a dairy magnate-turned-president) in 2009. The ramifications of the coup were severe. Kicked out of the African Union and isolated diplomatically, the government saw 40 percent of its budget evaporate overnight as foreign aid was withdrawn.

In the following years, lawlessness prevailed. Heavily armed bandit militias took control of the southern part of the island, stealing tens of thousands of cattle and killing dozens of villagers in the process. The coup regime neglected to address repeated cyclone damage, creating perfect breeding conditions for locusts, which infested the island on a biblical scale, pushing millions of Malagasy even closer to starvation. Critical habitat loss threatens the world’s premier biodiversity hotspot with a wave of extinctions. With public health programs virtually non-existent under the coup regime, diseases — including the bubonic plague — have spread. The 14th-century Black Death is a scourge of 21st-century Madagascar.

As these problems grew, politicians indulged in a prolonged, self-interested bickering match. Elections were scheduled, canceled, re-scheduled. This continued for four and a half years as international diplomacy sought to restore democracy to the Indian Ocean island.

Elections were made possible only when a reconstituted electoral court issued a surprise ruling banning Rajoelina, Ravalomanana, and former president Didier Ratsiraka from running. The vote proceeded with proxy candidates: former Minister of Budget and Finance Hery Rajaonarimampianina for Rajoelina and ex-World Health Organization official Jean-Louis Robinson for Ravalomanana. Both men made it through the first round of voting on Oct. 25 and into the two-man runoff scheduled for Dec. 20.

Almost immediately after polls closed, the international community eagerly gave Madagascar’s election their democratic seal of approval. With only a few hundred of the 20,000 precincts reporting, they already considered the election a done deal. Madagascar had returned to democracy. The EU’s chief election observer, Maria Muniz de Urquiza, declared the elections "free, transparent, and credible." Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, head of the Southern African Development Community mission, said the vote was "free and transparent and reflected the will of the people."

Now, with the second round looming, the horse-trading has begun, as the two first-round winners try to convince their vanquished opponents to support them in the second round. Nobody pretends this was ever about democratic expression or policy. It is about winning, whatever it takes. And because the international community failed to sanction the elections, the government and aspiring presidents have no incentive to change for the better.

These dynamics of Madagascar’s election reveal three valuable truths about transitions in countries like Madagascar.

First: Election monitors have lower standards for Africa than they do for the West — and that can be dangerous.

Madagascar’s elections were marred by obvious irregularities. Census agents covered just 30 percent of the country, so the extremely outdated electoral lists included only 7.8 million of Madagascar’s estimated 10-11 million voting age citizens. Media time was severely skewed toward Rajaonarimampianina. Illicit funding — particularly from the illegal rosewood trade — likely filled the campaign coffers of those close to the "transitional" regime.

This combination of irregularities made it easier for Rajoelina’s candidate to clear the hurdle to the second round. After all, only 245,000 votes separated him from the third-place finisher, who is now out of the electoral contest.

If an election like this had happened in the United States, it would never be deemed "free and fair" — but apparently, this is good enough for Africa.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that international observers should abandon Madagascar altogether. Further isolation would not help Madagascar break out of its continuing crisis of gridlock and stagnation. But likewise, this over-eagerness to celebrate severely flawed elections as paragons of democracy does not do the country any favors. And this problem is not unique to Madagascar.

Kenya’s 2013 election was labeled "free and fair," and "free, fair, and credible," even though there were problems with voter lists and 28 polling stations reported turnout above 100 percent — problems that matter especially since the winner avoided a runoff by just 8,000 votes.

Outside Africa, in Azerbaijan, the results for this year’s election were seemingly accidentally released before the election happened. Vote counting irregularities occurred in 58 percent of precincts. Some observers still deemed the election "free, fair, and transparent." In reality, it was an electoral joke.

Until higher standards exist, autocrats will be able to use the words "free and fair" to validate the outcomes of undemocratic elections.

Second: Madagascar’s elections demonstrate that the international community is willing to place expediency above principle.

International observers did not protest when Lalao Ravalomanana — the former president’s wife — was barred from running on a technicality. Banning her from the ballot was expedient, but it was also bad democratic prece
dent. Moreover, barring the three former presidents may have been the only way to smash through the bitter roadblocks to elections — but it is hard to argue that the resulting election represented the will of the people when three of the most popular candidates were not on the ballot. Yet this stratagem won the blessing of international mediators. This is not to say that the decision was a bad one: elections needed to happen. It is simply yet another illustration that in the messy wrangling that is African democracy, expediency often trumps democratic principle.

Third, and finally: the Malagasy election demonstrates that a sea change is needed to lower the stakes of defeat in fragile democracies.

Upon losing the U.S. presidential election in 2012, Republican candidate Mitt Romney faced the prospect of making millions on book deals or speaking tours, not exile or jail. In Madagascar, the loser of any election has a choice: go into exile, or face imprisonment. Exile is a tradition in Malagasy politics, where losers need travel agents to save their lives. This is not the recipe for long-term stability.

As long as losers in places like Madagascar face exile or (political) death if they lose, volatility and the risk of post-electoral violence is practically guaranteed. The international community should pressure regimes to respect their defeated opponents, and condition future aid guarantees on the post-electoral treatment of former rivals.

Of course, the international community cannot be blamed for everything. Certainly, these points are also important for transitioning countries to bear in mind: hold elections to a high standard, do not rush a vote, and make sure candidates can run for elections without fearing the consequences of losing. These lessons could help countries with constitutional assemblies and structured transitional roadmaps. But international pressure plays an important role in ensuring healthy transitions, and in this case — as in so many others — election monitors let the country down. For now, whether democracy can germinate in Madagascar from the broken seeds of the Oct. 25 vote remains to be seen.

Brian Klaas is an assistant professor of global politics at University College, London and the co-author of How to Rig An Election. Twitter: @brianklaas