It was the kind of earnest panel discussion that U.S. political experts have been organizing for decades: how to repair a broken democracy in a faraway country by rescuing it from the clutches of its authoritarian rulers. But this time the broken democracy was the United States. And it was a panel of African analysts providing the expert advice.
After decades of U.S. lectures to Africans about election reforms, it is a long-overdue switch. African analysts, like many others worldwide, are troubled by the mounting evidence of voter suppression, intimidation, politicized courts and partisan manipulation in the U.S. electoral system. Now they are offering their own experience to help America.
“Until you deal with all of the fundamental structural issues, I don’t think the U.S. can just put a Band-Aid on the Trump era and hope that things are going to get better,” said Sithembile Mbete, a South African political scientist, during the panel discussion last week.
“Everything from the way in which Senate seats are distributed to the way in which the Electoral College is set up means that the U.S. doesn’t have a properly democratic system of the kind that U.S. organizations design for democracy for Africans,” she said.
Around the world there is a growing consensus that the United States is in dire need of political reform – regardless of who emerges as the winner of Tuesday’s election. And the most insightful diagnoses of the crisis may come from the same African countries that President Donald Trump has ridiculed in the past.
With the clarity of distance and detachment – and with the experience of their own painful democratic struggles – Africans have been able to spot the defects in the U.S. system and prescribe solutions. Voter suppression, as it is called in the United States, is known more simply as vote rigging in Africa, and the continent has vast know-how when it comes to identifying it and responding to it.
Dr. Mbete, a senior lecturer in the department of political sciences at the University of Pretoria, said Washington could begin by taking the same advice it routinely dispenses to African countries: set up an independent, non-partisan electoral commission to provide clear decisions; create an audited voters roll at the national level; introduce national rules on ballot procedures; and stop relying on a patchwork of arbitrary local rules that can disenfranchise voters.
“Developing uniform standards and regulations for managing elections is necessary to prevent the kind of vote rigging we see play out in the U.S. every election,” Dr. Mbete said.
Patrick Gathara, a leading Kenyan political analyst, offered the U.S. a lesson from his own country: a change in leadership is of little help if the system itself needs fixing.
“In Kenya we’ve replaced dictator with dictator, and always the next guy is supposed to be the good one, but it never works out that way,” Mr. Gathara told the panel discussion.
“The discussions that the U.S. has been encouraging other people to have, other countries like Kenya, about accountability and transparency and ways of tethering public officials – it seems to me that the U.S. did not have the discussion itself,” he said.
“When you think you’re the shining light on top of the hill, showing everyone else the way, perhaps it makes you unaware of your own faults.”
One of the biggest flaws in the U.S. political system is its potential for sending the loser of the popular vote to the White House. In the past 20 years, because of the Electoral College system, two presidential candidates – George W. Bush and Mr. Trump – have won elections despite losing the popular vote.
“Even the staunchest admirers of the U.S. shake their collective heads in disbelief,” said Tony Leon, a former leader of South Africa’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance.
Because of the “arcane Electoral College,” U.S. presidential elections are effectively controlled by a relatively small number of voters in a handful of swing states, Mr. Leon said in a recent commentary.
African leaders are increasingly questioning “the taken-for-granted notion that the American democracy serves as a role model for African states,” said Bob Wekesa, a scholar at the African Centre for the Study of the United States, a think tank at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
In the latest issue of the pan-African online newspaper The Continent, a home page cartoon featured Africans peering across the ocean at the United States. “What on Earth are they doing over there?” the Africans ask.
“From Africa, this looks to be a failed democracy, no longer the poster country of free elections,” South African journalist Athandiwe Saba wrote in The Continent.
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