When a national leader wins an election with more than 90% of the vote, it defies all rational ability to explain such an outcome. Such is the case with Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who for the second consecutive election has won the presidential race this week with nearly 100% of all votes cast. In America, we are suspicious of a politician whose vote approaches 70% of the votes cast. The idea of universal popularity is beyond our ability to accept, and I make no case that one should find justification in this case. This situation can be explained, but not justified.
What has allowed President Obiang to win such daunting majorities is a combination of factors that need to be better understood. First of all, the vote total certainly does not reflect his personal appeal to all Equato-Guineans. Among the leading clan of his majority Fang ethnic group, Obiang has played politics well enough to achieve and hold onto power since overthrowing his uncle in a 1979 coup. As there is no consensus choice to succeed him, he has the support of those still jockeying for position, as well as those prospering under his rule and their extended families. Moreover, local officials jockey to attain the highest support levels possible in their areas so they “guild the lily” by finding ways to boosting the vote count even though President Obiang would win anyway. At this point, no one among his officials would want to win less than 90% of the vote, even though 60% would be just as much a victory.
Human rights reports cite numerous violations, which are beyond dispute. However, the bulk of the issues involve the political opposition, whose level of support is surprisingly small, and not so much the general public as in the past. There have been several attempts to overthrow Obiang – most directed or supported by Spain, the former colonial power. Harassment and jailing of opposition leaders and execution of convicted coup plotters apparently have not prevented even civil society representatives from supporting to some extent Obiang’s reelection because of security concerns. The last coup attempt involved not only Spain, but also has created suspicion of at least tacit support by France and the United States. When the big powers are believed to be involved in efforts to overthrow your government (whether proven or not), many citizens will form some level of alliance to ward off potential neo-colonial control from outside.
One of the consistent figures in Equato-Guinean coup attempts has been Severo Moto, an opposition party leader who has long believed there was no way to democratically replace Obiang through elections. Spain, desiring to remove Obiang and replace him with a leader less inclined to the United States and more favorable to Madrid, continues to back schemes to install Moto as president. Instead of building his UP party, Moto has spent his time in exile creating ways to seize power through force rather than win it at the ballot box. He was not his party’s candidate in the 2009 race because he is wanted for his involvement in multiple coup attempts.
Placido Mico Abogo, leader of the CPDS party, for quite some time seemed to prefer basing his political appeal on well-justified criticism of the Obiang government rather than focusing on party-building. After joining his fellow opposition leaders in a boycott of the 2002 elections, he and others found that Western countries may listen to the criticism and provide an international spotlight, but in the end, they will at least tacitly accept the results of an election they once called fraudulent. This is especially true when the government in question is a major oil producer as is Equatorial Guinea.
Building a political party in Equatorial Guinea is not an easy task. The ruling PDGE party controls the media and has the power of incumbency. By limiting the campaign period to a few weeks, opposition parties are hardly able to make the case that they should replace Obiang and PDGE. When the government can build a modern hospital in Bata, the largest city on the mainland, or bring development to the long-ignored island of Annobon, many voters begin to believe they’re better off with the government they know rather than one whose policies and ability to deliver are only speculative. This is especially true for the roads and electricity brought to opposition areas of the country. It dissolves the ill will against a government that has otherwise monopolized oil revenues.
It must be pointed out, though, that in the 1995 local elections, the opposition did quite well, even capturing the mayor’s office in the capital of Malabo. Unfortunately, the opposition party mayor failed to deliver city services, and when Obiang’s party recaptured the office, they learned from that mistake. Still, if the opposition parties were able to better understand how politics works and find an appeal to voters, they have shown they can win elections in Equatorial Guinea.
Incumbent parties are turned out eventually in every country no matter how long they have held power. Complacency, corruption and abuse of power catch up with all parties if they stay long enough. But you can’t beat something with nothing. If the Equato-Guinean opposition wants to see an end to 90%-plus margins of victory for Obiang, they will have to go back to the drawing board because as unbelievable as the vote totals are, they are not merely the product of political sleight-of-hand. People are actually voting for Obiang and his party and not for the opposition leaders and their parties – certainly not in the astronomical range we see, but surely by landslide proportions.
International news conferences and favorable articles outside Equatorial Guinea influence no votes on election day. Only convinced voters do.