Labeling Elections ‘Good Enough’ Lets African Leaders Get Away With Fraud
Setting the bar too low for African democracies, as the international community did in Madagascar, encourages electoral manipulation and bad governance.
Madagascar, home to nearly 30 million people—a population larger than Australia’s—rarely makes international news. When it does, the headlines are usually about the island’s endangered lemurs—not its people. And if you can name Madagascar’s capital without consulting Google, you’re in a distinct minority. (It’s Antananarivo.)
Such geopolitical obscurity creates strange political dynamics around elections. On the one hand, Madagascar’s politicians yearn to be internationally recognized, so they run a parallel campaign—one for domestic consumption and another for the international community—that often involves saying the right thing for an international audience while doing the wrong thing for Madagascar. On the other hand, the island’s political elites have also figured out that so long as they clear the absurdly low bar that has been set for them by the international community, they’ll be able to take power and bask in international legitimacy. And that low bar creates incentives for power-hungry politicians to rig elections.
Indeed, these days, it seems that any election that is nonviolent is deemed “good enough” for Africa. The United Nations highlighted the “peaceful and orderly” process in Madagascar. And the European Union, despite witnessing cash bribes in exchange for votes, still gave a firm thumbs-up to the election, peppering its initial report with praise for the “calm” process—a phrase commonly used in places where there’s a threat of electoral bloodletting. But an overemphasis on an absence of violence can lead to an absence of democracy.
In December, longtime rivals Andry Rajoelina and Marc Ravalomanana squared off in Madagascar’s tense presidential vote—pitting a onetime coup plotter against the man he had overthrown—in a battle that international observers feared would lead to violence. Western governments heaped praise on Rajoelina for winning what they considered to be, by Madagascar’s standards, a praiseworthy election. But the defeated Ravalomanana really deserved the credit. After being beaten in a low-quality election plagued by undemocratic practices such as vote buying, he graciously conceded defeat, congratulated his opponent, accepted the results, and attended his rival’s inauguration.
Had Rajoelina lost at the ballot box, there was a widespread assumption that he would have taken the fight to the streets, a typical precursor to political violence in Madagascar. Ravalomanana could have easily triggered mass street protests as well. He flirted with the idea for a few tense days but ultimately held back. That decision allowed Madagascar to sidestep the kind of political violence that has derailed development on the island for decades. Indeed, it was an unusually smooth transition of power considering that the candidate who won the 2018 election had previously overthrown the losing candidate in a military coup less than a decade earlier.
A rags-to-riches dairy kingpin, Ravalomanana had grown up selling yogurt off the back of his bicycle. After his tiny business grew into a dairy empire, Ravalomanana leveraged his newfound wealth into political clout and became the island’s president in 2002. But in late 2008 and early 2009, the recently elected mayor of Antananarivo—a 34-year-old radio DJ named Andry Rajoelina—took to the airwaves and called for residents of the capital to protest Ravalomanana.
Those protests led to a bloody incident, in which protesters tried to cross the “red line” barrier of the presidential palace. Troops fired on them, killing at least 40 people. Support for the government collapsed. Weeks later, Ravalomanana was forced from power in a military coup. The army replaced Ravalomanana with the young Rajoelina, who, just a year earlier, had left the turntables and nightclubs behind to become Antananarivo’s mayor.
Following the coup, Rajoelina wasn’t content to just take power from Ravalomanana; he wanted to destroy him for good. Ravalomanana’s factories were burned down. The state shut down what was left of his dairy business. And Rajoelina’s regime forced the deposed president into exile in South Africa, where he lived for five years, unable to return home. After attending Rajoelina’s recent inauguration, Ravalomanana is rebuilding his political and his business empires. With legislative elections around the corner, he’s hoping to have a stronger showing in the National Assembly. And, for now, the old dairy business is rising from the dead—without severe political interference. But he’s not getting the international recognition he deserves for putting peace before power.
Rajoelina also yearns for international recognition. After taking power in the 2009 coup, Rajoelina ruled as the president of the transitional authority for nearly five years—a period of international isolation for Madagascar, when economic decline, obscene graft, and environmental destruction all stained him internationally as a pariah. In 2013, international pressure, led by the regional bloc the Southern African Development Community, forced both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana to stay on the sidelines of the next presidential election.
That so-called neither/nor deal forced Ravalomanana and Rajoelina to each pick proxy candidates. But that brokered solution was announced after the candidate registration window had closed, so the two patrons had to pick proxies from among the slate of uninspiring no-name candidates who had already registered. As a result, Madagascar faced almost five years in limbo, from 2013 to 2018, as a government without popular legitimacy took the reins. The winner of the 2013 election, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, was such a placeholder that he won only about 8 percent of the vote in 2018—one of the worst showings by an incumbent president in the history of elections.
So far, Rajoelina’s first few weeks in office have been slick. His personal website could pass for that of a well-funded candidate in a U.S. campaign. His Twitter feed is carefully manicured, blasting out image after image of high-profile meetings with international investors, diplomats, and foreign heads of state. But there’s reason to be skeptical that Madagascar’s DJ-turned-president will tackle poverty or corruption on the island, despite his drive to present himself as a reformer and gain the approval of outside powers.
Take Rajoelina’s plans to bolster Madagascar’s military. The island suffers from lawlessness and the violence that comes with a country where the central government controls the capital but has limited reach outside of it. Heavily militarized militias called dahalo have turned the ancient tradition of cattle rustling into an industrial-scale gangster operation, complete with frequent killings, smuggling, and corruption. Murderous thieves roam the vanilla farms of northeast Madagascar, where the villagers rely on vigilante justice rather than the state to protect them. And kidnapping, particularly of high-profile businessmen, is often used to extort ransoms that are then paid to fund political war chests.
At a ritzy conference center full of guests from the international community, Rajoelina pledged to tackle violence and insecurity once and for all. But his promises were fantastical. Flanked by soldiers in futuristic camouflage and the kind of military gear that you would see in NATO armies, Rajoelina pledged to implant a tracking microchip into every cow on the island to help stop the dahalo from stealing them. That’s quite a reach for a country that often fights the dahalo by shooting at them with rifles from 1960s-era Alouette II helicopters discarded by the French military. It would be a better use of money to train more soldiers, tackle corruption within the armed services, and create more expansive patrols beyond the reach of Antananarivo.
Such lofty promises that are sure to crash to Earth when reality sets in are a missed opportunity. Madagascar could break out of poverty. There are billions of dollars of mineral wealth situated beneath Madagascar’s red soil; there are proven oil sands reserves on the island and offshore; and its biodiversity means that it could become an ecotourist mecca if political stability and infrastructure were prioritized. To be fair to Rajoelina, his Initiative for the Emergence of Madagascar does include planks for boosting tourism, improving food security, and ensuring clean water and reliable energy for all. Those plans deserve praise. But because the proposals are strikingly thin, there’s a nagging question given how he governed previously: Are all those glossy documents just for show?
That worry is compounded by the election that he won, which had serious flaws but was rubber-stamped by the international community for expediency’s sake. Indeed, Madagascar’s elections are subjected to virtually the same criticism every time—and nothing ever changes. The EU’s 2018 election observer mission noted that two local leaders were given $5,000 in sacks of cash in exchange for them to deliver their community’s votes to Rajoelina. (He denies any impropriety.) And given that serious campaign finance rules don’t exist, it’s an open secret that Madagascar’s elections are more of a contest of bank accounts than of popularity. But the money dries up between elections. Western investors have largely been scared off by unacceptably high political risk.
Decades of repeated failures of governance have made Madagascar’s poor economic prospects seem intractable. At any given time, the U.S. tech giant Apple has about 20 times more cash in the bank than Madagascar’s entire GDP. “We go from crisis to crisis, and it never ends,” one prominent government official told Foreign Policy. But others with a more optimistic bent saw the recent election as a chance for the country to finally end the decadelong feud between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina. And officials from the international community presented the elections as an opportunity to reaffirm democratic governance on an island sorely in need of a break from authoritarian-style rule.
There’s a reasonable interpretation of Madagascar’s election that Ravalomanana lost because Rajoelina had not only burned down his factories and severed his stream of business revenue but also because Rajoelina had accrued such a vast war chest through corruption while in power that nobody could compete with his vote-buying operation. Of course, it’s impossible to be sure—vote buying is secretive by nature. In my own experience, I’ve witnessed voters being paid with small gifts, sometimes of cash and other times with T-shirts or other more practical items. And because Madagascar uses a runoff system of elections, minor candidates run in the first round of the elections knowing that they will win only 1 or 2 percent of the vote—but then they sell that share to the highest bidder in exchange for a future endorsement before the second round.
Low-quality elections are being approved as high quality by the international community because the bar is too low. The message that gets sent to figures like Rajoelina is unmistakable: Buying votes with bags of cash is not an obstacle to securing a much-coveted badge of international legitimacy. Instead, you’ll get fawning press releases from foreign governments that choose to look the other way. Those overly permissive diplomatic high-fives encourage leaders like Rajoelina to continue manipulating elections illegitimately. After all, he had his cake and ate it too—he skewed the election in his favor and got praise from the international community while doing so.
For peace to prevail in such contentious low-quality elections, you need to be lucky enough to have a losing candidate—like Ravalomanana—who recognizes that the election he contested was not fully fair but also sees that peace and stability are more important than his own political aspirations of returning to power. That combination is in short supply—not just in Madagascar but in most semi-authoritarian regimes across the globe.
The Madagascar election underscores just how important it is for international observers and international organizations to applaud and encourage real progress but still hold fast to democratic norms. That means openly acknowledging electoral warts. Say it isn’t good enough—and that similar manipulations won’t be tolerated in the future—and mean it. Without both halves of that crucial message, countries such as Madagascar will continue to be stuck in a vicious cycle of bad governance, led by those who do the bare minimum to achieve international legitimacy.