THE adoption of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) guidelines governing democratic elections in Mauritius last week was widely welcomed but analysts have voiced reservations about the “weak link” in the protocol — the issue of observers.
Although the Sadc principles stipulate that elections in the region will be observed by an official delegation from the regional bloc, the rules are silent on the role of observers from individual member countries and other interested parties.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) said even as it welcomed the regional electoral norms and standards, it was concerned that the protocol only refers to Sadc election observers and not other international groups.
Zesn, which has been at the forefront of the campaign for electoral reform, said it was important to invite observers from all over the world. The group recently held a meeting on the issue in conjunction with the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa in Victoria Falls where a number of aspects of electoral changes were discussed, including the issue of observers.
An Independent Electoral Commission Bill proposed recently by Zesn, a coalition of 38 civic organisations, states that Zimbabwe’s envisaged elections body should invite “foreign observers”, which means those from Sadc and elsewhere.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change and civic groups like the National Constitutional Assembly have demanded an overhaul of the electoral system to create a conducive environment for free and fair elections. In the process, they have called on observers from all over the world to be given unfettered access to oversee the polls.
However, nothing in the Sadc principles is said about inviting observers from regional parliaments and other groupings such as the Sadc Parliamentary Forum whose secretary-general Kasuka Mutukwa attended last week’s summit in Grand Baie, Mauritius.
Then there is the African Union, Commonwealth, and European Union — which have diplomatic relations in the region — that might be interested in observing elections in southern Africa.
The otherwise well-received protocol leaves it to the member states to choose who to invite as observers. In fact, it is a matter of choice whether or not Sadc countries invite observers at all. There is no obligation to do so, according to how the principles are written.
The electoral norms and standards say Sadc countries will issue an invitation to the regional bloc’s observer mission three months before voting if they “deem it necessary” to allow adequate preparation for the deployment of the team. The Sadc observer mission would be in the country at least two weeks before voting.
“In the event a member state deems it necessary to invite Sadc to observe its election, the Sadc Electoral Observation Mission (Seom) have an observation role,” the principles say. “The mandate of the mission shall be based on the Treaty and the Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation.”
The chairperson of the organ — currently President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa — “shall officially constitute the mission upon receipt of an official invitation from the electoral authority (not government) of a member state holding the elections”.
The principles further say that the chairperson of the organ shall mandate the Sadc executive secretary to issue a letter of credentials to each member of the Seom prior to their deployment into the country holding elections.
“The constitution of the mission should comply with the Sadc policies relating to gender balance,” the principles say. “While recognising that the members of the mission may come from different political parties in the home countries, they should behave as a team.”
The Seom would be headed by an official from the chairperson of the organ’s office who would be the spokesperson of the mission. The team would send regular reports on the election observation process to the representative of the organ on issues that might require urgent attention.
The mission would also issue a statement on the conduct and outcome of the election immediately after the official announcement of the results. It would then prepare a report on the elections within 30 days of the declaration of the results.
The Sadc principles also contain a code of conduct for election observers. The set of rules of behaviour are consistent with those of the African Union’s Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa.
Sadc observers are obliged to comply with laws and regulations in the country holding elections. They are also required to “maintain strict impartiality in the conduct of their duties, and shall at no time express any bias or preference in relation to national authorities, parties, and candidates”.
The observers would not be allowed to “display, or wear any partisan symbols, colours or banners”. Furthermore, the observers would not accept gifts from parties or candidates, as well as attend parties. They would also be given unhindered access to all relevant areas during the course of duty and be allowed comment on issues freely.
Analysts say Sadc’s silence on foreign observers from outside the region could have been designed not to offend sovereignty sensitivities of some Sadc member states, although that leaves open one of the most important questions regarding the conduct of elections.
The exclusion of foreign observers from outside Sadc seems to have been for President Robert Mugabe the most encouraging part of the process.
Mugabe openly expressed his contentment with the issue upon his return from Mauritius last week.
Over the years the issue of observers in the region has generated controversy, especially during Zimbabwe’s last two crucial polls in 2000 and 2002 which were riddled with political violence and blatant vote-rigging. The Sadc principles prohibit the “perpetration of electoral fraud, rigging or any other illegal practices”.
Zimbabwe’s past two controversial national elections, in particular the presidential poll, got a mixed response from observers. Missions from Sadc and the AU and some individual African countries like South Africa and Tanzania said the election was “legitimate”, while the Commonwealth, Sadc Parliamentary Forum, EU, and countries like the United States, Ghana and Japan said it was “not free and fair”. The international community broadly rejected the election result.
While some countries have welcomed foreign observers without restrictions, others like Zimbabwe have been grumbling, claiming some observers, in particular those from the Commonwealth, EU and North America, were coming with mindsets or hidden agendas.
Although analysts say this could be partially true, the point remained that Zimbabwe’s complaints only started recently when Zanu PF became unpopular due to its governance failures following which it came to rely on voter coercion to “win” elections.