A closer look at the electoral landscape yields a troubled portrait of the state of democracy in Southern Africa, writes Kudrat Virk.
Lost in the shadows of the build-up to South Africa's commemoration of 20 years of democracy will be another milestone: the 10th anniversary of a commitment by the 15 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to the peaceful and democratic conduct of elections across the region.
There are reasons to celebrate. Since 2004, more than 30 national and presidential elections have been held across Southern Africa, with only Swaziland's absolutist monarchy bucking the regional trend towards participatory democracy. Yet, a closer look at the electoral landscape yields a troubled portrait of the state of democracy in Southern Africa and the ability of SADC states to translate declaratory commitments into practice.
As the deadline for parties to register to contest the country's fifth democratic election in May draws near, the countdown to elections in 2014 is also gathering pace in Malawi, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibia. The transition to democracy in these countries has varied. Botswana is one of Southern Africa's oldest and most stable democracies, having gone to the polls regularly since independence in 1966.
Although it has a shorter history of political inclusiveness, post-apartheid South Africa has established transparent and participatory governance structures since 1994. Its electoral commission has overseen the conduct of four peaceful general elections, and the country's electoral conflict management mechanisms are a positive example for the region.
On the other hand, the transition to democracy has been fragile in Malawi, where the unfolding "cash-gate" corruption scandal has exposed the fragility of state institutions. And in Mozambique, the recent outbreak of hostilities between the government and former rebels has generated uncertainty and anxiety.
Credible elections are vital for creating the peaceful, democratic environment necessary for socioeconomic transformation in Southern Africa. Yet elections in the region have not always been free and fair. In several countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2011, and Zimbabwe in 2008, they have fuelled insecurity, weakened prospects for effective governance and undermined regional stability.
Adopted in 2004, the SADC principles and guidelines governing democratic elections provide a critical frame of reference for the credibility of polls across the region. These guidelines are informed by the community's own founding treaty of 1992, as well as the Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU) of 2000.
Although not legally binding, they are a public commitment by governments to foster inclusiveness, tolerance, fairness, impartiality and transparency in electoral processes. They are a benchmark for accountability, but these regional standards have sometimes been honoured only in the breach.
The SADC guidelines require member states to establish impartial, inclusive, competent and accountable national electoral management bodies. Though most countries have constituted such bodies, their functioning has been problematic in several cases. The Malawi Electoral Commission, for example, has suffered from political meddling in the appointment of commissioners. In Mozambique, during previous elections in 2009, the capacity, transparency and independence of the electoral commission was a matter of concern for observers.
Admittedly, not every electoral issue can be reduced to the weak implementation of SADC norms. In the majority of countries in Southern Africa, a great many parties contest polls, yet outcomes are often known in advance. Dominant-party states are widespread: the Botswana Democratic Party, for example, has ruled the country for about 47 years.
In addition, the propensity of ruling parties to centralise control of campaigning, monopolise national media and, at times, use state institutions for party-political advantage can create an uneven playing field, hindering free electioneering.
Troublingly, the SADC as a whole has occasionally failed to uphold its own rules when they have been flouted by a prominent member state. Zimbabwe is a case in point. In 2005, serious concerns were raised about the credibility of the country's electoral process by local civil society organisations. Yet the SADC declared that Robert Mugabe's government had complied with the 2004 democratic election principles and guidelines. The crisis that arose from a similarly flawed electoral process in 2008 was defused by a weakly implemented power-sharing agreement between the ruling Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change.
More robust implementation of the 2004 SADC principles and guidelines is clearly needed. As a 2013 report by the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution argued, governments across Southern Africa must do more to empower national Parliaments; ensure independent judiciaries; safeguard the autonomy of oversight institutions; and encourage free and independent media.
Greater and more effective participation by civil society, in particular, is essential to consolidating democratic governance in the region. The SADC could take its cue from the AU, as well as the Economic Community of West African States, which have demonstrated willingness to collaborate with civil society by granting them observer status at their official meetings.
Finally, elections are important, but they are not a panacea for governance challenges, nor are they synonymous with democracy. In South Africa, for example, the inability of successive ANC governments to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunities, particularly for the youth, poses one of the greatest challenges to continuing democratic consolidation.
Elections in Southern Africa risk becoming a procedural fig leaf if they are not backed up by the capacity and will of regional states to deliver on developmental goals.
Kudrat Virk is a senior researcher at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town.