Opinion

SADC handbook must reintroduce 'free and fair' to elections

Webster Zambara

The Southern African Development Community's guidelines lean towards election observation rather than election management, writes Webster Zambara.

Hundreds of residents from the Ndirande township queue to vote on May 21 in Blantyre, Malawi. (AFP)

This year, the Southern African Development Community celebrates 10 years since the creation and adoption of 15 guidelines and principles governing the conduct of elections.

In 1996, as part of their commitment to regional political integration, SADC member states established the organ on politics, defence, security and co-operation (OPDSC), the protocol of which was adopted in Blantyre, Malawi, in 2001. The aim was to promote the development of democratic institutions and practices as well as the observance of human rights as set out in the charters and conventions of the Organisation of African Unity (now the African Union) and the United Nations.

In 2004, the OPDSC adopted the SADC Indicative Plan for the Organ as a planning and implementation strategy towards regional political integration.

This led to the establishment of the SADC principles and guidelines governing democratic elections, which can be seen as an attempt to localise UN and AU commitments. But they also borrow (without acknowledgement) from the SADC parliamentary forum’s norms and standards for elections, as developed in 2001, and the principles developed by the Electoral Institute for Southern Africa in 2003.

Currently the region is carrying out a review of the guidelines, to culminate in a SADC election handbook, which is supposed to be done by the end of this month. A decision to review the guidelines was made as far back as June 2011, soon after the inauguration of the barely known SADC election advisory council, intended to enhance regional electoral standards, governance and democracy. Among its roles is facilitating the development of mediation strategies to address pre- and postelection conflicts.

But the current guidelines lean towards election observation rather than election management. Thus SADC observer missions almost always conclude that any election “reflects the will of the people”.

This gives the impression of a solidarity pact among ruling parties, heads of state and government to paper over even overtly illegitimate electoral processes. For this reason, Botswana has pulled out of costly election observation exercises that condone flawed elections, citing Zimbabwe’s recent poll.

The region has fallen into the fallacy of electoralism, which equates democracy with the holding of elections only. The recent Malawi elections, which the outvoted president declared void because of alleged “rampant irregularities”, show why this is important. The SADC election observers mission’s haste to declare the election “peaceful, free, transparent and credible, reflecting the will of the people of Malawi”, well before the official results were announced, looks like a serious error of assessment.

After Swaziland’s elections in September, the SADC said that, “although some of the concerns raised were pertinent, they were nevertheless not of such magnitude as to affect the overall electoral process”, going on to congratulate Swaziland for its “orderly and peaceful elections”. Yet this is a country that prohibits the registration and operation of political parties, preferring political representation on the basis of “individual merit”.

In Zimbabwe, a few months before that, the SADC mission declared the elections “free, peaceful and generally credible”, rather than “free and fair”, which are in fact the criteria for “credible” elections, according to the existing SADC guidelines. So the poll was declared “generally credible”, despite the fact that no meaningful reforms had been made as part of the 2008 “Global Political Agreement” between the ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition, which SADC had helped to bring into being. Problems with that election, which were ignored by SADC, included the fact that the voters’ roll was not made available until a few hours before the poll.

In a region where most countries talk democracy but walk authoritarianism, a region in which one-party systems or dictatorships are dressed in the garb of democracy, SADC’s review of the electoral guidelines should have had a higher profile. Consultations should have been wide enough to allow greater participation – six or so consultative workshops convened, but that was all.

Yet, for all that, many look forward to the new SADC election handbook with hope and anticipation. South Africa’s recent successful elections – free, fair and credible – provide an example for the region as a whole to emulate.

Webster Zambara is a senior project leader for Southern Africa at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.

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