A democracy requires elections, but not all elections are the same. I am thinking about election issues because presidential candidates’ campaigns in the USA are heating up. They are in the news constantly. And, worse, one hears accusations, condemnations, false statements stated as truth, etc., etc. At the same time, elections are scheduled to be held December 27 in the Central African Republic. It’s not the same, but it is just as big a mess. Let’s see if we can make sense of things.
I will admit that there are many things about the electoral process that I don’t fully understand. How is it, for example, that in Great Britain, the ruling party can call for elections when they want (and, I guess, when they think they can win)? I know this confusion comes from the fact that the USA has set elections – the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November – every year. I know in the USA politicians are elected for terms of differing lengths – 6 years for senators, 2 years for representatives. And, the elections are staggered so that even if all incumbents lost there would not be all new senators/representatives in Congress at the same time.
I will admit to not understanding why candidates for US presidential elections feel they need to start a couple of years before the actual election (in this case November 2016). I will admit to not understanding why primary elections can’t all be on the same day so that all citizens in all states have the choice of the full range of candidates. I know that states like Iowa want to be first to have more of a say (I guess) in who is the candidate for each party. (They even passed a law that says something like our primary caucuses have to be one week before everyone else’s. Is this thinking of the good of the country and democracy?) But it means that states like Pennsylvania never get the choice of all the initial candidates (even though they moved their primary up a little) because people drop out before Pennsylvanians vote.
I also don’t understand why everything has become so polarized in the past decade or more. (And it is daily getting worse.) I know that the internet has made it so that people can more easily find others who think like them. One result of this has been that these groups have pushed the thinking of the group further and further toward the extreme. Another result, in my opinion, is increasing inflammatory statements and ways of presenting the “other’s” position. It is much harder to find rational debate and almost impossible to find people who are truly willing to listen to each other’s positions – not with an eye to converting, but in an effort to understand and find common ground.
To recap what most of us know about US elections (to use for comparison with that happens in CAR): The USA has two main political parties and several other smaller ones. Each party has the chance to pick its candidates. First, all voters express their opinion by voting in the primary elections which happens 5-10 months before the November elections. These votes are not binding, but delegates from the states are chosen based on the candidates they support as determined by citizens’ votes. Some states select all candidates who support the person with the most votes. Other states apportion delegates according to the percentage of votes for candidates.
Then, in July or August, the Republicans and Democrats have conventions to officially choose their candidate. (I suppose the other parties do, too, but I don’t hear much about them.) It used to be that there was more uncertainty in who would be selected with a lot of “back room” politicking, but now citizens’ votes in primaries seem to be more closely tracked and followed. The conventions also adopt the party’s platform, approaches and policies on various issues confronting the country. I think they also prioritize issues, but will admit to never having paid too much attention to the party platforms…
Serious campaigning begins after the conventions leaving 2-3 months to spend huge amounts of money, much of it for television ads, but there are also radio spots, rallies and events held in local communities, etc.
The USA presidential elections is complicated by the electoral college, but let’s not get into this complex system established by the founding fathers because they didn’t completely trust the votes of the masses… Let’s just say that all citizens vote on the same day (this time November 8, 2016) to choose the next president (and other officials at the national, state, and local level) who then takes office in January 2017.
Officially Central African presidents are elected for six-year terms and may be re-elected. Central Africans also vote for legislators and some local officials, such as mayor. (Some leaders, like préfets and sous-préfets, are appointed by the national government.)
The current situation in CAR, however, is not “normal.” The coup d’état on March 24, 2013 means that regular government functions ceased. An interim government was named and has been working to write a new constitution, bring peace, disarm all but the military, and to schedule elections. Interim leaders have had limited success, as I am sure you have heard. UN and French peacekeeping forces have been sent. Some people have disarmed, but many have not. Scheduled elections have been pushed back several times. Still, the overwhelming sense is that the first round of elections must be held in 2015. People want to normalize the government and their lives.
The first step will take place this Sunday, December 13. Central Africans will vote in a referendum on the newly written (revised?) constitution. Editorial note: I understand the need to get people’s support, but I wonder who has a copy of the new constitution. Is it written in French? Songo? Both? Local languages? With the literacy rate lower than 50% in the country, who has it, or can read it if they do?
The next part of the election process, scheduled for December 27, is the vote for president. Other national and local officials will also be elected (I think). Would-be candidates had to submit their applications by early December; 44 were received. Then, those responsible for elections in the interim government reviewed the credentials and eliminated a bunch. There are now 29 candidates. Note: Leaders of the rebel groups are not eligible to run. One of the candidates who was disqualified was former-President Bozizé who was ousted in 2013. Unfortunately, violence erupted the next day in Bangui, most likely instigated by Bozizé and/or his supporters.
I asked a Central African I know here how anyone gets to know the candidates to be able to make a good decision. He said that they begin to campaign after the referendum (which is two weeks before the election itself). My concern is that people will go with name recognition – I know that happens a lot in the US. Who are the names many would know? Sons and a grandson of former presidents. Still, this friend, in the same conversation, didn’t seem worried about that. People, he said, don’t want “business as usual.” He scoffed at these sons being elected.
I know that most people in the USA can’t imagine choosing among 29 candidates. We are used to long campaigns and primaries winnowing down the selection. Here it works differently. A candidate can’t be elected without at least 50% (or something like that) of the vote. It is highly unlikely that any one candidate will reach that level on December 27. If no one does, there is a second round of elections. Only the top candidates run that time. (Note: I don’t know if the candidate has to have a certain percentage of the vote or if they pick the top 3-4 people. Maybe I’ll find that out after Dec. 27.)
I had heard that the second round of elections would be in January. Someone yesterday told me it will be in February. So, the top candidates will have 1-2 more months to campaign before the second round of voting.
Installation of the newly elected officials will happen at some point after the elections. I don’t know what is normal in CAR and also don’t know if some other plan will be set because this is the first election after a coup.
I know that UN peacekeepers have been assisting in getting necessary materials into the country and to various towns. I know they also continue to work for disarmament, but their mandate does not include going into the bush or towns to take weapons.
I have concerns because so many “rebels” still have arms. Many are now really just bandits extorting and robbing to make a living. I hope they will support peaceful elections, but wonder…
I am concerned about displaced people being able to vote. I know that the Central Africans in Garoua Boulai (those who are officially registered as refugees) have completed paperwork that will allow them to vote here. I believe officials are also working in the refugee camps and other towns with many Central Africans here in Cameroon. I believe the same thing is happening in other neighboring countries and hope it is happening at refugee camps in CAR and in other places where many Internally Displaced People are now living.
My other major concerns include whether all groups will accept the newly affected officials. People in CAR are polarized (as in the USA), mostly it’s along ethnic group lines here. Will those with arms be willing to give up their “easy” (for them) jobs? Are the candidates creating platforms (or whatever they are called here)? Do they have ideas of ways to help the country develop and grow in positive ways? Will they be able to go against the long “tradition” of (governmental and organizational) leaders coming into leadership positions so that they can enrich themselves and their families even at the expense of the country (or organization)? How can they be held accountable? (Editorial note: I worry about US officials coming into office, not so much to get rich, but for power. Power corrupts. So, it is no wonder I worry about that here, too.) Time will tell.
Is there hope for democracy? What can we do to improve the electoral process? One easy answer is to VOTE. It is our privilege and right. We may think that one vote doesn’t matter, but it does. Yes, I will be applying to vote by absentee ballot for the primaries, even though those votes only get counted if the results are close. It is still my responsibility. You can go to your local polling place – easier for you. Be sure you do!