A peaceful and open vote in Benin has returned multi-party politics to the tiny West African state and follows in the pattern of maturing democratic systems elsewhere in Africa. However, not all ballots will fit this mould in 2023, as some electoral cycles are becoming exceptionally violent, while other elections may not go ahead at all, thus pushing socio-economic and other grievances out of the political realm and onto the streets of fragile states. Pangea-Risk has identified the hotspots for election violence in 2023 and picked five votes in Africa and the Middle East that should be carefully monitored this coming year.
On 8 January, Benin held legislative elections in a test of democracy as the ballot returned one opposition party to the West African country’s parliament after parties not affiliated to the president boycotted or were excluded from previous elections. The first elections of 2023 in Benin have followed a pattern of maturing democratic systems in parts of Africa, which was shaped by the 2021 polls in Zambia and last year’s general elections in Angola and Kenya. In all of these votes, ruling parties or incumbents were challenged by opposition forces in increasingly fair and open multi-party elections. This trend sets a positive tone for the coming year as some 16 African countries are scheduled to hold elections over the coming year, plus Turkey in the Middle East region.
In 2023, several hotly anticipated votes are taking place in the backdrop to rising costs of living, tight fiscal regimes, and broader insecurity. Some of these elections may trigger political instability and, potentially, unrest. In fact, we have identified more than ten countries where upcoming elections may drive insecurity that should be monitored over the course of this year. Meanwhile, preparations for about 13 more elections in Africa in 2024 alone will also drive similar risks of political instability, civil unrest, and policy uncertainty this year. Nevertheless, elections increasingly offer a chance for electorates aggravated by inflation, debt, and other grievances to vote out incumbents and seek political renewal, thus avoiding broader instability. For example, Benin’s election this month has thus far avoided forecasted outbreaks of anti-government unrest and instead allowed the opposition to regain a voice in the country’s political process.
PANGEA-RISK identifies five key elections to watch in 2023 in Africa and the Middle East. During the course of this year, our coverage will continue to monitor all elections in these regions.
FIVE KEY ELECTIONS TO WATCH IN 2023
1) Nigeria – Federal elections in February 2023, followed by state elections in March 2023
On 25 February 2023, Nigeria will hold general elections at the federal level against a backdrop of growing militancy, inter-communal conflict, and rising socio-economic risks. Despite the signing of a peace accord by the 18 political parties contesting the election, since the start of the campaigning period in October, scores of people have been killed in violent election-related incidents recorded across the country. There is a high likelihood that such incidents will lead to reciprocal cycles of violence between rival party supporters over the coming weeks and months. At the same time, leading political candidates have increasingly adopted divisive language, threatening to exacerbate ongoing episodes of ethnic and religious inter-communal violence in many areas of the country. Bandits, secessionist rebels, and Islamist militant groups, are also likely to escalate attacks to disrupt the election, including on Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) offices, employees, and voting sites.
Nigeria’s general election in February, which will only be the second time since 1999 that an incumbent president is not on the ballot. A tight race between representatives from Nigeria’s three biggest ethnic groups indicates the country may need to hold a historically unprecedented run-off ballot just a week after the first round. The stakes are high as the oil economy is declining, debt turns unaffordable, and insecurity threatens the state itself. The early January kidnap attack on a train in Edo State indicates that militant and bandit violence is pushing southwards and posing increasing threat to commercial interests.
Despite the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) having secured victory in the last two elections, the results of multiple opinion polls favour Labour Party (LP) presidential candidate, Peter Obi, by a notable margin to the APC’s Bola Tinubu and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party’s Atiku Abubakar. While Obi has no doubt become increasingly popular since his defection from the PDP in May, the LP has performed relatively poorly in the last two presidential and legislative elections. Nonetheless, while the accuracy of polls conducted four months out from the vote should be viewed with scepticism, this outcome matches with a broad sense that voters have become deeply frustrated with the country’s two major political parties (see NIGERIA: SOCIAL AND SECURITY RISKS RISE AS ELECTION CONTEST ENTERS CRITICAL PHASE).
2) Turkey – presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023
As the June 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections get closer, the risk of polarisation within Turkish society may increase. Following several security incidents in late 2022, the government is likely to adopt a hawkish stance and boost counter-terrorism campaigns, potentially including more cross-border operations in Iraq and Syria. A shift towards a security-themed re-election campaign could allow President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to reap a potential boost from nationalist and conservative voters ahead of the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections. In the past decade, opposition parties have repeatedly accused Erdoğan and the government of using anti-Kurdish, belligerent rhetoric, and external operations to raise Turkish nationalist votes before elections.
However, this should not threaten the political stability of the country. The political opposition remains fragmented, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led People’s Alliance is likely to use a variety of strategies to prevent the cross-partisan opposition from coalescing around a preferred candidate before the 2023 presidential and general elections. In the meantime, Erdoğan will continue to dominate Turkish politics through a mixture of authoritarianism, control of state resources and the bureaucracy, a tight grip on media, and his still-strong personal support among conservative voters.
3) Gabon – General elections in Summer of 2023 (July-September)
Just eight months from Gabon’s general election, President Ali Bongo in January appointed the country’s first female Prime Minister Rose Christiane Ossouka Raponda to the role of vice president and named a new prime minister, Alain-Claude Bilie-By-Nze, to replace her. Ossouka Raponda is a firm loyalist of the president and she had to navigate a delicate political scene after a coup attempt in 2019 while Bongo was on prolonged medical leave following a stroke. President Ali Bongo Ondimba has been reasserting his authority since a stroke in 2018 and he is preparing to run for a third term in 2023, which he is constitutionally entitled to do. Should Bongo confirm his decision to run in 2023, his victory is effectively guaranteed. This is due to his control over Gabon’s political system, the lack of a credible electoral system, and a fragmented opposition.
Civil unrest risks will rise ahead of the 2023 elections, especially if President Ali Bongo seeks a third term in office. There will remain a heightened risk of military and civil unrest as long as there is no clarity on the health condition of Ali Bongo, his third term ambitions, and the government does not initiate constitutional provisions for the presidential succession. Beyond 2023, the Bongo family member being positioned most evidently onto a succession path is the president’s son Noureddin Bongo-Valentin. Noureddin’s portfolio of state responsibilities continues to grow; in addition to his role in co-ordinating Gabon’s domestic debt Task Force, he has now also been tasked with overseeing the PAT macro-economic plan.
4) Sierra Leone – General elections in June 2023
The government of President Julius Maada Bio is under mounting pressure from dwindling political support due to rising food and fuel prices, climbing budgetary pressures, and a growing national debt burden. Faced with an economy struggling to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, diminishing foreign donor support, and widespread allegations of mismanagement and corruption, Bio’s government stands accused of doing little to deliver on the promises which saw him and his SLPP party voted into power in 2018. As these challenges persist into the coming months, Bio will remain caught between fulfilling the expectations of international development partners, while simultaneously attempting to salvage his falling domestic popularity ahead of seeking a second term in 2023. Ahead of the 2023 elections, Bio’s government is expected to launch more populist policies to avoid further loss of political support.
Bio’s perceived governance failures have seen tensions between the ruling party and the opposition become more pronounced. As the opposition attempts to capitalise on Bio’s unpopularity, the coming months will see a heightened likelihood of incidents of political violence, primarily manifesting in the form of isolated skirmishes between rival party supporters. The threat of food-related unrest remains particularly high since the mid-2022 riots that the government called an opposition-led insurrection. Since those riots, inflation has continued to soar. Politically and ethnically charged rhetoric has reversed some of the gains of the peaceful transition of power in 2018. If the government’s policy agenda stalls or the economy falters, sporadic outbreaks of localised violence between partisan supporters and security forces will remain particularly likely in Freetown, Bo, Kenema, Kono, Pujehun, Kailahun, and at Tonkolili mine.
5) Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – General elections in December 2023
The upcoming Congolese elections, if they proceed as planned, will cost at least USD 600 million and occur in the backdrop to intensifying insecurity in eastern provinces. At the 2023 national elections, President Félix Tshisekedi will face a challenge from the camp of his main rival and predecessor, Joseph Kabila, as well as other major national figures that are currently tied in his ruling coalition. Tshisekedi is dismantling Kabila’s networks in the security sphere and the mining sector in anticipation of the elections. In this context, the government has signed a deal to resolve a commercial dispute with Kabila ally, Dan Gertler, who remains under US sanctions. Meanwhile, the government has retained its focus on Chinese involvement in the mining sector, especially the controversial infrastructure-for-minerals deals, which date back to the Kabila era. For the time being, his Union Sacrée coalition supports the purge of Tshisekedi’s political rivals, although the alliance is more likely to fracture closer to the elections.
DRC’s strengthening economic and fiscal prospects are underpinned by strong demand for the country’s minerals that are essential for renewable energy technologies. An oil and gas auctioning process is attracting further investment, although Congo’s creditworthiness remains constrained by weak institutions, a deteriorating political risk environment, limited domestic financing capacity, and reliance on external concessional funding. The government has been praised by international partners for its anti-corruption campaign that has targeted its predecessor’s interests, as well as a more business-friendly approach that has ensured IMF support. Having recently joined the East African Community (EAC) regional bloc, the DRC faces an insecurity crisis that could trigger a broader war with its main trading partners. The prospect of a foreign military intervention in Congo’s restive northeast is increasing, which would have profound consequences for the wider Great Lakes region and commercial interests such as mining, energy, and infrastructure projects, as well as NGO operations. President Tshisekedi is leveraging the insecurity crisis to enhance his re-election prospects in 2023.