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Democracy, of a Sort, Sweeps Africa

Across the continent, countries are holding elections. But they may or may not indicate true political freedom.

Looking at an electoral map of Africa, one might think the continent was undergoing a rousing shift toward democracy.

More than a score of presidential, legislative, or local elections are set to take place this year and in 1997. Many of the votes involve more than one party for the first time in countries not known for allowing free choice.

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But lining up to cast ballots does not necessarily mean freedom of speech or tolerance of dissent. On a continent of 52 nations and 800 million people, where opposition parties often lack funds, rulers control power with the gun, and ethnicity decides loyalties, these exercises in Western-style voting are often at best tepid moves toward more open political systems. At worst, they're farces, many political analysts say.

Take the example of the June 26 local elections in KwaZulu-Natal Province in South Africa, a country considered one of the continent's showcase democracies. Factional fighting between the two main parties led to assassinations of more than a half-dozen candidates. (One party had to drop leaflets by airplane into the enemy camp because its canvassers would have been killed on the spot.)

Armed supporters of the two main parties, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African National Congress, often prevented rivals from entering each other's territory. "If Inkatha tries to come here, we'll shoot them," said a youth named Lucky, who had his gun handy, in an ANC-controlled area of KwaZulu-Natal.

Peter Miller, the provincial minister who oversaw the election, says problems like this are endemic across Africa. "One cannot talk about fully free and fair elections in Africa. The conditions aren't there," he says.

But Kingsley Amoako, head of the United Nations Economic Commission on Africa, based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, maintains that any election is better than none. "These elections, even if flawed, are a start," he says. "People are slowly getting used to the idea of pluralism, and change is gradually taking place."

Hopes had been high that political freedom would sweep Africa after the end of the cold war. No longer pawns of the United States-Soviet Union rivalry, African countries would be free to choose their political systems.

But the transition has been tough for many states accustomed to dictatorship or one-party rule after independence from colonialism in the 1960s and 1970s.

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Some ill-prepared for balloting

According to Richard Cornwell, a political analyst at the Africa Institute, a think tank in Pretoria, South Africa, immense poverty means that those in power will try to hold onto it. Without power, he says, they have no guarantee of economic survival. The problem has been worsened by privatizing state industries, which employ many people, and austerity measures demanded by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), which have strained the economies and put thousands of people out of work.

"The promise of a liberation [through elections] was false," Mr. Cornwell says.

Cornwell and others say that many times elections will be held in African countries to satisfy Western countries and institutions that give them aid. But the polls then become exercises with little substance. Donors such as the World Bank and IMF are sometimes more lenient toward abuses of civil liberties as long as their prescribed economic programs are adhered to, Cornwell says.

Often African countries are ill-prepared for truly democratic voting because of illiteracy, traditions of authoritarianism, corruption, and weak government institutions. In many African societies, the chief rules in a village. That pattern of authority often becomes reflected on the national level.

Weak government institutions are another problem. When Portugal exited Mozambique in 1975, there were only 30 university-educated people in the country. The nation has been struggling ever since with incompetent leadership, political analysts say.

In addition, Africans often vote along ethnic rather than ideological lines creating tensions for the losers, many Africa experts say. This especially happens when the winner takes all in elections, and there is no mechanism for power sharing with smaller parties.

This was apparent in Tanzania, where the mainly Muslim population of Zanzibar island claimed it was denied victory in fraudulent elections last year. "They don't [just] oppress us politically; they also want to suppress our culture," says a Zanzibar shopkeeper named Ali. The risk now is that ethnic nationalism and calls for secession could rise, diplomats say.

Africa watchers do see some encouraging signs, especially in southern Africa, perhaps the continent's most stable sub-region because of its comparatively wealth and higher education levels.

South Africa's 1994 multiracial general elections, which ended 300 years of white domination, were flawed. But they did bring about majority rule and a thriving opposition - helped in part by the country's economic strength and the political maturity of both the black and the white leadership that negotiated the transition from apartheid.

Likewise, Botswana, a tiny country that has consistently posted one of Africa's highest economic-growth rates, has been quietly enjoying what some analysts call Africa's purest democracy with a high level of political tolerance. Mauritius, another relatively affluent island state, also has a vibrant democracy. Both countries have pragmatic leadership.

Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, and Malawi held elections in recent years that were seen as largely free of irregularities. Sierra Leone has astounded observers by its relative calm since elections in February. The vote was held despite a civil war and a military coup the previous month. Many wonder if the chaos in next-door Liberia will spill over the border.

France nurtures democracies

France is involved militarily and economically in its former African colonies, mostly in West Africa. But its attempts to nurture multiparty democracy have been mixed. The Comoro Islands went to the polls this year after a history of coups. Benin held elections March 18 that returned a former dictator to power and surprised many with its fairness.

But each success story can be matched by a failures. Extreme poverty prompts social discontent. So Tom and Prncipe held its first pluralistic elections a few years ago, but the lack of democratic traditions meant few were surprised by a coup attempt last year.

Some political analysts argue that Western models may not always apply to Africa. They point to Uganda, whose President Yoweri Museveni ruled against other parties taking part in elections earlier this year, claiming that the country was ill-prepared for Western-style pluralism after a long history of ethnic strife. Many observers said Mr. Museveni's election victory was the best solution for a country that has prospered under the stability of his rule.

Pat Keefer, an expert on Africa at the National Democratic Institute, a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, questions whether political liberalization can occur when poor countries are under the pressure of reforms prescribed by the World Bank and IMF.

She points to Zambia, where the popularity of President Frederick Chiluba was so eroded by austerity measures he imposed under IMF and World Bank guidance that he was nearly ousted by the opposition.

"Maybe you cannot do this economic restructuring and democratic development at the same time," Mrs. Keefer says.

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