Do free and competitive elections make a democracy? Maybe not

21 Feb

By Lauren Bishop

Tanzania looks an awful lot like a democracy. The East African nation has been holding multi-party elections since 1995, which international observers have deemed free and competitive. In Tanzania, votes are not miscounted, opposition parties compete actively, and the ruling party—the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which has controlled the government since independence—seems to play by the rules.

But according to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, NYU politics professor and DRI affiliated faculty member, Tanzania is in fact sliding down a slippery slope to autocracy, even as it maintains the trappings of a “transitioning” democracy. A working paper with Alastair Smith describes how Tanzania’s completely legal and institutionalized electoral laws are placing power in the hands of a small and increasingly entrenched elite.

During Tanzania’s transition to democracy, the ruling party wrote a constitution that gave itself a significant advantage. Tanzania uses first-past-the-post plurality voting, which tends to result in two major political parties—as in both the US and the UK. But in Tanzania, the government encourages the survival of many parties, offering subsidies to presidential and parliamentary candidates. This is our first eyebrow-raising clue that something is amiss.

This artificial proliferation of political parties, along with a complicated system of direct and indirect voting, results in a Parliament where the CCM needs only one-third of the seats to reach a majority. The indirectly elected seats must be filled by women, which makes Tanzania appear progressive, but because most of the women owe their jobs to the CCM, they act as loyal rubber-stamps for the party. Raise your other eyebrow now.

Since the electoral structure allows the CCM to gain much of its support through indirect votes and appointed seats, Bueno de Mesquita and Smith found that the number of direct votes required to win a district is a powerful negative predictor of whether the ruling party will bestow goods like roads and subsidy programs on that district. Even programs specifically intended to alleviate poverty are subject to this logic: Doubling the number of direct votes required to win a district would result in a 69 percent decrease in the chance of receiving vouchers for subsidized maize. What’s even worse is that poor, more crowded districts tend to require fewer direct votes than richer, sparsely populated ones, so poor areas get fewer subsidies, and rich areas get more roads.

Tanzania receives nearly 3 billion dollars in aid each year. How many of these aid dollars have helped build roads where they’re not needed and buy cheap maize for the rich? Donors beware: you may be bankrolling the ruling party’s position of power.

Lauren Bishop is Online Projects Assistant at DRI, Economics Program Assistant at NYU Africa House, and an NYU MA student in International Relations.