AFRICAN autocrats are learning how to win democratic elections.
Pressed by human rights advocates and foreign donors to lift bans on opposition parties and allow multiparty elections, a growing number of African autocrats have gone on to win such contests.
President Daniel arap Moi's victory in Kenya's first multiparty race in 26 years is the latest example. According to weekend returns, President Moi captured 37 percent of the popular vote in the Dec. 29 presidential poll. Voters also elected parliament members and local officials.
In November, Ghana's military dictator, Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings, was elected civilian president in a multiparty election. Before that, autocrats in Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast trounced newly formed opposition parties amid charges from the opposition of electoral mischief by the government.
In both Kenya and Ghana, the opposition apparently underestimated the power of the incumbent. Both first alleged government bias in the registration of voters but showed enough confidence to participate in the ballots.
Other lessons from the Kenyan and Ghanaian elections include:
* A divided opposition is a weakened opposition.
* Tribal allegiances still influence politics in Africa.
* Human rights and government corruption are not as strong election issues as the economy.
Kenya's opposition parties "never put their act together as an opposition," says Grace Githu, national coordinator for a nonpartisan Kenyan election observer group, the National Election Monitoring Unit (NEMU).
In the aftermath of Kenya's poll, leaders of the three main opposition parties united to protest the results, alleging government ballot fraud. They may leave empty the seats they captured in Parliament, which account for about 40 percent of the legislature.
The lesson from Ghana is clear. Claiming the November presidential vote was rigged, Ghana's previously split opposition jointly boycotted that country's Dec. 29 parliamentary poll in protest. The result: Parliament is now totally in the hands of fringe parties loyal to Mr. Rawlings.
The Kenyan opposition should "build on the substantial gains the Kenyan people have made," says Rev. Samuel Kobia, chairman of NEMU. John Mbogua, another NEMU member, agrees, arguing that the opposition should take their parliamentary seats and pursue election complaints either in the courts or with the Kenyan Election Commission.
MEANWHILE, tensions are rising. Supporters of the opposition may yet launch a series of threatened street protests.
Moi has promised to respond to any violence with violence. Armed police patrolled the capital over the weekend.
Two international election-monitoring groups, one from the United States and the other from Britain, cite irregularities but have avoided calling the election unfair or rigged.
"The electoral environment was flawed," the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington-based election monitoring group, said in a post-election report here.
"There may have been efforts to manipulate the process," the IRI said, promising to issue a final report in late January.
But like NEMU, the IRI has encouraged Kenyans to realize that the election marked "a new beginning" toward democracy in Kenya.
Jack Titsworth, a Canadian diplomat observing the poll, expresses less optimism. "Human rights were trampled" during the preelection process in Kenya, he says, citing abuses of freedom of association and assembly (government restrictions on opposition campaigning in certain areas), and lack of freedom of information (government controls on opposition use of the state-run news media).
Voting patterns in Kenya showed strong tribal loyalty. "This [the Kenyan outcome] breaks down along tribal lines," says Tom Bayer, Africa program officer for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, a private, Washington-based organization.
Kenya's opposition hammered away at alleged government abuses of human rights, but the economy proved to be a stronger issue among many voters.
And until the very end, opposition leaders grossly underestimated Moi's support. Some polls, carried out in unscientific ways, even showed the incumbent getting practically no votes.
"If you lose, it was rigged," is the opposition's typical view, says Mr. Bayer, who has monitored elections in Angola, Mali, and now Kenya.
Moi, who has been in power since 1978, bowed to domestic and international pressure in December 1991 to lift a ban on the opposition and call multiparty elections.
Western donor nations suspended millions of dollars in aid pending democratic reforms.