By the time the sun sets on Mozambique Thursday, as many as 8 million people will have cast their votes in the country's third election since independence in 1975. For the residents of this former Portuguese colony, this week's election marks a decade of peace, stability, and economic growth after more than 16 years of brutal civil conflict. Although the country remains one of the world's poorest and most underdeveloped, it is seen by donors as a democratic success story.
The vote in Mozambique is also the last of five presidential elections in Southern Africa this year, and the third in which a longstanding leader will step down. South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Malawi all held presidential elections that, for the most part, were peaceful and fair. These uneventful votes reveal a maturing of African democracy, experts say, and may mark the end of an era where leaders clung to power far past their expiration dates.
"Every time we have a relatively successful election which doesn't feature abuse ... it makes the business of democracy a bit more of a habit," says Tom Lodge, an elections expert at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who expressed cautious optimism about the state of democracy in the region. "The blueprint of 'president for life' is no longer considered normal."
The winner of Mozambique's election will replace Joaquim Chissano, a popular peacemaker and technocrat who has been president since 1986 when the country's first independent president, Marxist rebel leader Samora Machel, died in a plane crash.
When Mr. Chissano steps down, only Zimbabwe and Angola in Southern Africa will still be governed by the liberation-era leaders who ushered them into independence from Europe, although tiny Swaziland continues to be ruled by Africa's last absolute monarch. Zimbabwe's leader since 1980, Robert Mugabe, was reelected in a controversial 2002 vote that many international observers denounced, while Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santos has led his country since 1979 and is resisting calls to schedule a date for national elections.
In three elections this year, however, other longstanding Southern African leaders have stepped down, sending what analysts say is a message to leaders like Mr. Mugabe and Mr. dos Santos.
In addition to Chissano, Namibia's president since independence in 1990, Sam Nujoma, is retiring from office in March and will be replaced by Hifikepunye Pohamba, who was elected in mid-November. Malawi's two-term president, Bakili Muluzi, left office in June after a failed bid to change his country's constitution to allow a third term.
"Having Nujoma, Chissano, and Muluzi stepping down is very important," says Denis Kadima, executive director of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA). "It becomes actually difficult for a leader to say, 'I'm going to stay forever.' Those leaders that resist that, marginalize themselves. I think we are hoping that there will be the same development in Zimbabwe."
The recent changing of the guard, however, does not necessarily herald political change. In every election this year, the governing party won, and in many cases the new president was a liberation-era politician handpicked by the outgoing leader.
In Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana, the governing parties increased their margins of victory. In South Africa and Botswana, they not only retained the presidency, but took a greater number of parliamentary seats.
This week's election in Mozambique, however, looks closer than other recent regional contests. There, the two parties that fought the country's costly 1977-92 civil war - Chissano's Mozambique Liberation Front and the Mozambican National Resistance, which was backed by the United States and South Africa during the war - will contest the presidency for the third time. Although the two parties offer few policy differences, the country remains sharply divided, largely by region.
While democracy in Southern Africa is still far from perfect, in many cases the processes of democracy are gaining strength and acceptance.
"The positive areas, in general, though not everywhere, are election administration and the freeness of the process in terms of freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of movement," says Kadima. "But on the negative side, it is also a trend that not much is being done in terms of fairness, in terms of access to resources, such as funding and the media."