Teaching U.S. election law in the shadow of a presidential election is an election law professor’s dream. There is no better backdrop for the material or more engaging context to capture student interest in the subject. However, as I also teach a comparative election law course that examines election law issues internationally, I had a difficult time deciding which to offer this fall in light of the seemingly record number of presidential and legislative elections this year. On no other continent is this cloudburst of elections more evident than in Africa. The concentration of African elections is owing not just to Africa having more countries and democracies than any other continent; rather, the combination of the Arab spring and the happenstance of calendrical synchronicity has yielded a mother lode of elections on the continent. Africa is evidence that, against many odds, democracy is at work. In the United States, democracy works in large part because of deeply entrenched historical values and a multiplicity of modern interests that depend on democratic institutions. Indeed, in much of the Western world, democracy enjoys a worn expectation as a successful form of governance. In modern Africa, however, democracy increasingly prevails because the lion’s share of its inhabitants is moving steadfastly and stubbornly against authoritarianism and the one-party state in hopes for a fairer, freer, and more equal form of government. Simply put, democracy in Africa grows from the same soil of revolution and idealism that nourished the seeds of U.S. democracy nearly three centuries ago. For those of us interested in the study of democracy, Africa is a place to watch in 2012.
With presidential elections scheduled or already held this year in Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Egypt, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Madagascar and parliamentary or legislative elections in Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Equitorial Guinea, Ghana, Mali, Lesotho, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Zimbabwe, the ballot box is on fire in Africa. More important, however, is what these elections portend for the future of democracy in this region and the potential teaching tool these elections offer for democracy enthusiasts. Many of these elections involve thorny procedural, administrative, and political issues that highlight the positive evolution of democracy in Africa and underscore the delicate trajectory of a decades-long democracy revolution worldwide. Three countries in particular are worth noting: Senegal, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali.
The only country in West Africa never to have had a coup, Senegal has been described by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems as a democratic reference point on the African continent. However, in the weeks leading to Senegal’s recent presidential election, an estimated six people were killed in what amounted to a month of demonstrations. The incumbent, Abdoulaye Wade, came to power in 2000 and helped to usher in a new constitution the following year that reduced presidential terms from seven to five years and instituted a two-term limit. Seven years later in 2008, the legislature passed another constitutional amendment reinstituting a seven-year term. Despite earlier promises to step down after two terms, Wade announced his intent to run for a third term in 2009 engendering fierce criticism in Senegal and internationally and threatening Senegal’s reputation for democratic stability. A Constitutional Council, the members of which were appointed by Wade, approved his eligibility to run on the grounds that the 2001 constitutional amendment applied only to his second term, thereby allowing him to seek a second seven-year term and third term as president.
The February 26 presidential elections gave Wade a slight lead over his main opponent Macky Sall, Wade’s former protégé and long-time party member. However, with Wade receiving roughly 35% and Sall 27% of the vote, neither obtained the required 50% minimum to avoid a run-off election under Senegal’s constitution. Despite the pall cast over the first round of Senegal’s presidential elections, the run-off on March 25 affirmed the country’s designation as a democracy on the rise. Wade’s support remained static while Sall earned 66% of the vote. In an uncharacteristic relinquishment of power amid protest and controversy, Wade conceded the race within hours of the close of the election. Wade’s spokesman accurately described the election outcome as proof that Senegal remains a “great democracy.”