NIGER'S first free presidential elections Saturday were the most recent in a series of African elections during the past year. Most of these were directly or indirectly spurred by Western pressures.
In Kenya, which held its elections in December, such pressures were particularly clear-cut and coordinated: Worsening corruption and economic policy, plus growing repression, prompted donors to agree in November 1991 to reduce or suspend economic aid. How should the industrial democracies respond?
Occasionally, as in Zambia and Niger, the outcome has been what democrats wished: a reasonably fair campaign and election resulting in a clear-cut victory for anti-autocratic forces, and a peaceful transfer of power. In Niger's case, initial results released Sunday showed Social Democrat Mahamane Ousmane defeated retired Army Col. Tandja Mamadou 54.8 percent to 45.2 percent.
At the other extreme, however, abuses are so blatant that neither citizens nor outsiders can accept the outcome. In the Central African Republic, the Supreme Court threw out the results of October's presidential and legislative elections. In Nigeria, the military government has pursued a phased return to civilian rule since 1986, but annulled the results of the September 1992 presidential primaries as corrupt. Most frequently the outcome is blurred, neither a success for democratic forces nor unacceptabl e farce.
Not only in Kenya, but also in Ghana, Cameroon, and elsewhere, incumbents sharply limited opposition access to the state-controlled media, harassed their rallies, bribed voters, and sometimes falsified returns. Not surprisingly the incumbents won, though sometimes narrowly.
For Western democracies, these facts pose two obvious questions: Should the elections be recognized? If so, how should relations with a dubiously legitimate government be handled? Behind these questions lurks a larger one: Should the industrial democracies continue to press for multiparty politics?
In the post-1989 flush of enthusiasm, pressing for multiparty elections seemed obviously desirable. The costs and risks of that course are now clearer. The immediate risk is civil violence. Even if that does not occur, opposition groups and ordinary citizens are bitterly disappointed; many may conclude that democracy is a sham.
If elections reveal widespread opposition as they did in Kenya and Cameroon, reinstated rulers may be tempted to crack down. Urgent economic reforms may be derailed. In Kenya, pre-election spending spurred rapid increases in money supply and inflation, and the collapse of an agreement with the IMF. After the elections President Daniel arap Moi initially tightened economic management, but then balked at containing corrupt financial dealings so massive that they sabotaged stability.
DESPITE the risks, the game is worth playing. In Kenya, in the absence of legalized opposition and elections, prospects for more open politics and less corrupt government would be dim indeed. Moreover, continued autocracy would ultimately have threatened even the stability and the moratorium on ethnic conflict President Moi cited to justify his rule. The vote revealed the depth of opposition to autocracy, and installed enough critics in the legislature to play a watchdog role. Perhaps more important, div ided opposition groups have been given a potent lesson in the urgency of compromise and cooperation.
While the game is worth playing, first-round victories, as in Zambia, will be rare. Where we are not prepared to reject results outright, we must accord qualified recognition. We are likely to have greater influence by partly - but only partly - restoring aid flows, while making clear that future increases or cuts will reflect the government's political, as well as economic, policies.
Prospects for democracy can also be improved by assisting the evolution of an autonomous and responsible press, civic associations, and judiciary, and working through international and non-governmental, as well as government-to-government, channels.
Paradoxically, the rarer clear-cut victories for democracy may pose an even greater challenge to Western industrial democracies. It is cheap and fairly easy to withhold aid to sanction repression, especially in small nations. It is fairly cheap to limit aid to dubiously reelected autocrats, though continuing to exercise constructive pressure will take great skill. The real challenge comes when fairly elected but precarious governments hold power.
Such governments may require substantial help for a long time. If we and other industrial democracies are not prepared to provide that support, we jeopardize not only new governments but democracy itself. In the past three years we have been backing away from that challenge. We should rethink our priorities.