It is the miracle of the Cape Verde Islands.
This past weekend, former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Mascarenhas Montiero scored a landslide victory over incumbent President Aristides Pereira, whose party had been in power since the Atlantic Ocean island nation gained independence from Portugal in 1975.
In winning 75 percent of the vote, the president-elect became just the second opposition candidate to defeat a ruling party in an African election. (The other was in another island nation, Mauritius, in 1981).
The winner said his victory illustrated that "the people have bet on change and democracy."
The election results in Cape Verde have given added momentum to waves of strikes and public demonstrations that have demanded political pluralism in Africa in the last six months, shaking one-party governments from Angola to Zambia.
"It [Cape Verde] is going to have a massive effect on Africa," said Millard Arnold, an Africa expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "It's going to send shock waves through one-party governments everywhere. . . . Any time a government is voted out, people pay attention."
Mr. Arnold thinks the initial effects of Cape Verde will be felt most strongly in Angola and Mozambique, both former Portuguese colonies confronting challenges to their one-party rule.
In Angola, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) faces a genuine possibility of being unseated in future elections by Jonas Savimbi's U.S.-supported National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).
Only a handful of African governments -- Kenya, Malawi, Libya, Lesotho, Swaziland and Tanzania -- have refused to entertain political pluralism.
But while some countries have bowed to domestic and international pressure to allow political pluralism, others may just have gone to greater lengths to manipulate the election process.
"The real lesson here is that there is a very cynical manipulation of the process," said Michael Schatzberg, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "These dictators are saying to the West, 'If you want multiparty democracy, we'll give you multiparty democracy.' They want to remain in power even if there is a facade of multipartyism."
During the last six months, national elections have taken place in the Ivory Coast and Gabon, two longtime one-party countries that were prompted by mass public protests to establish multiparty democracies. In neither country was the ruling party unseated, however, and there were widespread charges of election fraud.
In other multiparty democracies -- in Botswana, Egypt, Namibia, Senegal and Zimbabwe -- opposition parties have little chance of winning power through the ballot because of ethnic, religious or political factors.
There have been several examples of phony liberalization throughout Africa, where despots have continued to consolidate power and manipulate the democratic process while giving the appearance of reform.
The moves are aimed at currying favor with international financial bodies, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which are now formally encouraging the establishment of multiparty systems as the best way to ensure African economic reform.
For some countries, such as Angola and Mozambique, the need for economic relief is acute since they are basically being abandoned by a post-Cold War Soviet Union.
The carrot-stick approach is aimed at rewarding political reform with continued economic assistance. Such assistance is the lifeline of many one-party African governments which now must compete increasingly with Eastern Europe for Western aid and investment. It has also added emphasis to finding home-grown political and economic solutions.
The results, so far, have been mixed.
In Somalia, the unpopular 21-year military government of President Mohammed Siad Barre spent its last six months in power promising multiparty democracy and elections in a futile attempt to split a growing nationalist guerrilla rebellion and hold on to power.
How the regime would have been able to conduct the elections in the vast territory is unclear, given that the Barre regime controlled only the capital of Mogadishu before the rebels finally chased him from the presidential palace and power last month.
In Zaire, President Mobutu Sese Seko, who virtually bankrupted his country while becoming one of the world's wealthiest men, has suddenly warmed to the idea of multiparty democracy. The president, who ruthlessly crushed his opposition in the past, has allowed the unlimited formation of other parties -- thereby splintering his political opposition and wiping out already faint hopes that he could be unseated in the event of improbable fair elections.
Africanists are concerned with the rush among well-meaning policy-makers and others to encourage democracy in African societies without making sure fundamental safeguards, such as respect for human rights and the rule of law, are also strongly stressed.
The erosion and absence of these factors, along with political and ethnic competition, helped lead to the fall of the multiparty democracies that led most of Africa during the independence era.
There are signs of hope, however.
In Nigeria, there is a genuine, although clumsy, attempt by the military government at guiding a return to democracy by banning past politicians from seeking office and rejecting the formation of 13 parties.
The turnout for local elections held in Nigeria late last fall was about 15 percent -- an astonishing result considering that Nigerians have always been politically rabid. The electorate, however, was evidently skeptical of voting for either of the two government-established parties.
Whether public confidence among the Nigerians will build sufficiently in later state and then national elections before the planned return to civilian rule in 1992, only time will tell. But after LTC two failed attempts at multiparty democracy, Nigeria is at least trying once again.
There are also cases where domestic political ferment and international pressure could combine to duplicate the Cape Verde miracle on Africa's mainland.
The litmus test could be Zambia, where President Kenneth Kaunda faces the most serious threat to his 26 years in power. After surviving a coup attempt and food riots last spring, Mr. Kaunda reluctantly promised to hold a referendum on whether there should be multiparty elections. But even before that vote could be held, he was forced to grant that wish after rallies in support of the referendum drew crowds of more than 500,000 people -- the largest rallies ever in a nation with a population of only 7 million people.
Mr. Kaunda, the man who urged doses of democracy on white-ruled governments in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa, is now faced with having to taste his own medicine.
In past elections, where Mr. Kaunda was the only candidate, it was joked that Zambians had a choice of voting "yes" or "no" -- with a "yes" meaning that you wanted Mr. Kaunda to stay and a "no" vote meaning that you didn't want change. Those days appear to be over.
"If Kaunda plans to maintain power, there can't be free and fair elections," said Dr. Robert Cummings, a respected Howard University Africanist. "Kaunda represented himself as a savior to elder Zambians. But the younger people see him in a totally different way. There's a recognition that he's done all he can do and that Zambia needs a new leader with a new vision. Kaunda is simply not capable of this type of leadership."
How elections are conducted in Zambia could prove pivotal to the move for democracy elsewhere in Africa. The lofty expectations of the post-Cape Verde era are that leaders cannot hold onto power forever and must stand down if they are voted out of office.
"The difference now is that there's encouragement from the outside world to cast an independent ballot," said I. William Zartman, head of the African studies department at the Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "Demands for pluralism and democracy are rising. Governments will be forced to respond until demands are met or they will be thrown out."
S.M. Khalid is a reporter for The Sun.