HomeOpinionLitmus test of Sadc protocol on polls

Litmus test of Sadc protocol on polls

By Welshman Ncube

FREE and fair elections are an essential component of the broader process of democratic transition and the institutionalisation of democracy.

rial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>The current regional consultations on developing electoral norms and standards for the Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) are an acknowledgment of this and signal the increasing maturity of the regions’ nascent democracies. The deliberations underline the determination of most Sadc leaders to deepen democracy and consolidate the democratic gains that have been made since the revival of multi-party democracy across southern Africa in the 1990s.

The twin evils of poverty and inequality can only be properly tackled in an environment where people are free to participate in the democratic process, make their voices heard and periodically have the power to vote out the incumbents and elect leaders they believe are better-equipped to address their basic needs and grievances. Governments whose authority to govern is based on the will of the people, secured through a genuine ballot, are more likely to drive and deliver a country’s human development objectives.

When Sadc leaders gather in Mauritius this weekend for their annual summit it is hoped that the current deliberations will progress into a concrete set of principles and guidelines for democratic elections that are agreed to by all members. It is critical though that any norms and standards that are agreed upon are comprehensive: they need to encourage both the establishment of enabling political environments for democratic elections as well as legal, institutional and administrative electoral frameworks that harness transparency and fairness and therefore build public confidence in the entire electoral process.

In order to avoid undermining the credibility of its democratic governance agenda, Sadc must resist the temptation to produce a “compromised protocol”, based on narrow criteria, in order to secure agreement from those member states who do not instinctively share the commitment to democratic governance in its broadest context.

The recent electoral proposals tabled by the Zimbabwe government underline the urgent need for Sadc leaders to come up with a broad set of criteria for elections. In the absence of a collectively agreed set of benchmarks, the leverage at the multi-lateral level to encourage miscreant members – who are reluctant to properly address flaws in their electoral processes – to conform is very much weakened.

Moreover, the absence of binding rules and regulations creates a dangerous vacuum in which the definition of what constitutes a legitimate ballot is often subject to a very narrow and politically expedient interpretation, a factor which retards the growth of democracy by impairing citizens’ ability to have a free say in influencing the type of society they wish to live in. This is technically what is currently taking place in Zimbabwe.

In his address marking the opening of parliament on July 20, President Robert Mugabe announced that a number of electoral reforms would be introduced that are designed to level the playing field. These measures, he believes, will go some way towards appeasing those who are critical of how Zimbabwe manages and conducts its elections. Moreover, Mugabe will no doubt attempt to ensure that any agreement between Sadc leaders on election benchmarks is similar in scope to his own definition.

The proposals, which include the establishment of a new Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the reduction of polling days from two to one, the counting of votes at polling stations and the use of translucent ballot boxes, while a step in the right direction, do not tackle the more fundamental obstacles to genuine democratic elections in Zimbabwe.

What the reforms clearly indicate is that Mugabe and the ruling Zanu PF government define the concept of an election through a narrow prism and view it purely in terms of the actual polling day. The reforms therefore are primarily focused on addressing technical and administrative issues to improve the levels of transparency associated with the casting and counting of ballots. These reforms do not take into account the context and political environment that has caused the democratic deficit in Zimbabwe.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is of the view that an election is a process, not an event; and the minimum standards for elections that have been published by the party in our “RESTORE” document are premised on this broader interpretation of what constitutes an election.

The proposals by the Zimbabwe government may well secure the objective of ensuring transparency and fairness on polling day but, given the context of the Zimbabwe’s political crisis, they are woefully inadequate and in no way build the crucial levels of transparency and fairness in the entire electoral process that is necessary to ensure that the poll will be an accurate reflection of the will of the people.

For instance, the appointments procedure for the new electoral commission casts serious doubt on whether this new body will discharge its mandate in a non-partisan manner. Its chair, for example, will be appointed by Mugabe while the other members of the commission will be appointed subject to parliamentary approval.

Given Zanu PF’s parliamentary majority this technically means that the ruling party can submit a list of candidates and exploit its parliamentary majority to rubber-stamp their appointment. Moreover, the new commission will not have the mandate to carry out voter registration; this remains in the hands of the office of the Registrar-General, which continues to manipulate the voter registration exercise in the interests of the ruling party.

For genuine democratic elections to take place there has to be a free flow of information and ideas; voters have to be able to access alternative views, without fear of intimidation and violent retribution, so that they can make informed choices when it comes to casting their ballots. These democratic conditions can only exist within a political environment whereby the rule of law is upheld, the independent media is allowed to flourish, opposition parties enjoy equal access to the state media and all political parties are able to campaign freely without fear of persecution and violence.

Such democratic conditions do not exist at present in Zimbabwe; the government remains dogmatically committed to shutting down the democratic space, as illustrated by its refusal to consider amendments to draconian pieces of legislation that curtail civil and political liberties, its closure of three independent papers over the past six months and its recent announcement of plans to introduce legislation aimed at controlling the activities of civil society organisations.

Unless the political space is opened up a legitimate ballot is simply impossible, regardless of what reforms are introduced to improve the transparency of electoral procedures on polling day.

Sadc leaders must therefore base their considerations for a protocol on guidelines and principles for elections on the broad premise that an election is a process, not an event. A failure to do so will play into the hands of those who view elections as an opportunity to distort and manipulate the democratic process to “legitimise” their retention of power.

Finally, establishing consensus around electoral benchmarks is not in itself an accurate measure of success; success in this context can only be measured in terms of the level of compliance and how Sadc responds when member states fail in this regard – this will be the real litmus test of any new democratic election standards. If compliance is successfully enforced the Sadc region has the potential to act as the template and engine for sustainable development and good governance across the African continent.

* L’Express, Port Louis. Welshman Ncube is the opposition MDC’s secretary-general.

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