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ELECTIONS | 2019 poll prospects across the continent

Posted on Monday, 7 January 2019 09:12

All eyes are on the outcome of big votes with high stakes in both Nigeria and South Africa in the first half of 2019. Those votes are bellwethers for the political and economic direction of the continent. Meanwhile, elections in Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau will show if long-running conflicts there are on the path to resolution.


Ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is not loosening his grip on the levers of power in Algiers just yet. He has been showing his strength by sacking some security chiefs and hopes that a high oil price will continue to insulate the government from having to make too many tough economic choices. With the vast powers of incumbency that he has access to, Bouteflika – who is 81 and has been in power since 1999 – is unlikely to face much of a challenge at the ballot box in April 2019. He has yet to say he will run, but ruling Front de Libération Nationale officials have called for his sixth consecutive candidacy.


The country heads to national elections in October 2019, and President Mokgweetsi Masisi and the Botswana Democratic Party will likely face their toughest test yet. The legislative polls will be the key race, as Botswana’s president is chosen by the national assembly. The Umbrella for Democratic Change, led by Duma Boko, has the tough task of maintaining party unity while negotiating an alliance with the supporters of former President Ian Khama, who are angry at Masisi’s criticism of his predecessor. If Boko is unable to keep his alliance together, his attempts to unseat Masisi could quickly crumble.


The current parliament’s mandate has already expired, but whether the pres­idential election occurs in 2019 depends on if the country can organise the delayed legislative elections that were due to take place on 18 November. The Economic Community of West African States insists that the elections are necessary to get the country out of its political gridlock, since President José Gomes Mário Vaz is at odds with his own party’s leadership in parliament. With schisms in the ruling Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde, it is not yet clear if Vaz will be his party’s candidate again. The Partido da Renovação Social, the leading opposition party in parliament, also has yet to select its presidential candidate.


Elections due to take place in the middle of the year are set to be a bruising contest between President Peter Mutharika and his former vice-president, Saulos Chilima. Corruption and the ­future of the agriculture-based economy are set to be big topics out on the campaign trail. There are currently no polls that measure the two principal candidates’ popularity, but Chilima has more ground to make up because he just launched his own party in mid-2018 and faces the Democratic Progressive Party, which has been around since 2005. Both candidates are now looking for alliances that could strengthen their chances.


The February 2019 presidential vote in Nigeria does not look like a slam-dunk for any of the candidates. President Muhammadu Buhari won the 2015 election on a wave of hope that he would wipe out corruption, defeat the Boko Haram militants and improve the economy. Based on local firm NOIPolls’ survey data, Buhari hit his record high approval rating of 80% in October 2015, which then sank to 41% in May 2018. The government has not defeated Boko Haram and deadly farmer-herder clashes have rocked the Middle Belt. Buhari’s administration is now rolling out infrastructure and new micro-loans in a big pre-elections pending boost.

People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate Atiku Abubakar is back in the party fold and pitching himself as the candidate of business. Mirroring US President Donald Trump’s arguments, Atiku says that the government should remove regulations and interfere less in the economy. But the PDP has done little since getting voted out of the presidency to impress voters, with its state control largely limited to its base in the South East.

Both candidates are from the north and are seeking to widen their appeal: that is why Atiku picked former Anambra State governor Peter Obi as his running mate and Buhari is still relying on the mobilising capacity of former Lagos State governor Bola Tinubu and former Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi.


Despite President Filipe Nyusi’s weakness in the face of ruling-party hardliners and Frelimo’s tanking of the economy with secret loans for dubious purposes, he is likely to win October 2019’s race. The big unknown is how well the former rebellion and armed group Renamo will do in legislative and provincial polls as it pushes for decentralisation and keeps the possibility open for a return to conflict if the government does not follow through on an agreed peace deal. It will also be Renamo’s first election under the leadership of Ossufo Momade, who replaced long-serving Renamo president Afonso Dhlakama, who died in May 2018. Momade is sticking to his negotiating positions and insists that Renamo forces be integrated into the powerful Serviço de Informações e Segurança do Estado security services as part of the peace deal.


Barring any surprises, President Hage Geingob will win re-election in Namibia’s 2019 general election. He will be campaigning on policies supporting land reform and black economic empowerment. If all goes to the governing South West African People’s Organisation’s plans, Geingob will step down at the end of the term and open the way for party vice-president Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah to become the country’s first female president. McHenry Venaani, leader of the opposition Popular Democratic Movement, is campaigning on pocketbook issues, saying that the government’s economic policy is a failure and it spends too much money on the security services.


President Macky Sall likes his chances of winning re-election in the first round of the February 2019 presidential vote. Legal woes have knocked out his two main challengers, former Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall and Karim Wade, the son of former president Abdoulaye Wade. Khalifa Sall’s lawyers are trying to drum up international support for their client, saying his trial was orchestrated for political purposes. They insist that he will still run in the February 2019 race. Meanwhile, new electoral reforms make it much harder for independent and small-party candidates to run, which also favours Sall. In Sall’s favour are the fact that the opposition’s strongest candidates are out of the running and the economy is growing strongly.


Since the overthrow of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, no party has maintained enough power to achieve much of its agenda. The unity government between the centrists of Nidaa Tounes and Islamists of Ennahda fell apart in late 2018, and they and smaller parties will be competing for control of the presidency and legislature. President Béji Caïd Essebsi of Nidaa Tounes may run again and face a former ally, prime minister Youssef Chahed, and Ennahda’s Rachid Ghannouchi. The May 2018 muncipal elections showed that no party is likely to win an outright majority in the legislature. Ennahda took control of the mayor’s office in Tunis, but only gained 28.6% of the vote nationally. Nidaa Tounes came in second with 20.9%. Whoever wins the upcoming vote will inherit a weak economy and an active civil society. Trade union movements oppose the government’s attempts to implement reforms that would raise the cost of living and privatise state-owned companies.


South Africa’s May 2019 general elections are set to be a referendum on the reformist policies of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who took over from the unpopular Jacob Zuma in February 2018. The governing African National Congress (ANC) has won a majority in every election since the first democratic polls in 2014, and neither of the leading opposition parties have been making much headway. However, the ANC took just 55.7% of the most recent vote, the municipals of 2016.

While the ANC is now cherry picking some of Julius Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) big ideas, the Democratic Alliance is struggling under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane after the bruising battle over the forcing out of Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille.

Issues like land reform, education and healthcare are high on party platforms, but in reality the government that takes over in 2019 will have to tackle an economy that is struggling and where state-owned enterprises are a major dragon the treasury. If he wins, Ramaphosa will be looking to toe a line between launching the painful reforms that the economy needs – like sacking workers from bloated parastatals–and the populist policies that placate the ANC and the leftists in the EFF. With much of the blame for the parlous state of South Africa’s finances heaped on Zuma and his allies, voters will also be looking for the government to make good on ferreting out corruption with some high-profile prosecutions.

This article first appeared in December-January 2019 print edition of The Africa Report
Photo credits: 1. Buhari: BAYO OMOBORIOWO/AP/SIPA – 2. Ramaphosa: CHINATOPIX/AP/SIPA

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