Four more SADC countries face election challenges

The success of the May 7 elections in South Africa contains crucial lessons for the wider region. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The success of the May 7 elections in South Africa contains crucial lessons for the wider region. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

South Africa’s successful May 7 elections were significant for Southern Africa in many ways. South Africa was not ­celebrating 20 years of the end of apartheid alone – the whole region also marked two decades since the threats and destabilisation from the embattled apartheid regime came to an end. Since then, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has enjoyed relative peace and security compared with other African regional blocs.

South Africa is a beacon of hope because it held elections that were credible, free and fair. This will be on the minds of those voting in the region this year, when four SADC countries hold elections.

South Africa’s elections were held less than a year since the country acted as midwife to game-changing plebiscites in Zimbabwe (July 2013) and Madagascar (December 2013) – two hot spots in SADC where South Africa helped to bring stability.

Malawi will soon hold its own historic elections. President Joyce Banda, Southern Africa’s first and Africa’s second woman head of state, will contest it beside 11 other presidential hopefuls. Malawi’s elections are historic in that the country is celebrating 20 years since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1994. Besides having a female sitting president contesting for the first time, the country will host inaugural “tripartite” elections in which national and local elections will be consolidated in a single day of polling.

The Malawi Electoral Commission has never before run an election of such logistical magnitude; it has requested help from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. But the commission was overwhelmed by its own elections last year, so there are fears of shared incompetence.

Accusations of conspiracy to rig the poll have grown louder among opposition and civil society activists in Malawi after the government sought the services of the controversial Israeli security company Nikuv International Projects to help with preparations – the same company the Movement for Democratic Change blamed for its losses in last year’s Zimbabwe elections.

SADC should not take the situation in Malawi lightly. The political temperature has been rising since July 2011, when 19 civilian anti-government protesters were killed by security forces during three days of rioting. In March, politically motivated violence claimed two people’s lives, a police officer and a civilian, and there are already accusations of plans for post-election violence.

Mozambique will hold presidential, national and provincial assembly elections on October 15. President Armando Guebuza is stepping down at the end of his second term, as the country’s Constitution dictates, though his party has a large enough majority in Parliament to alter the Constitution and extend term limits. Presidents for life are fast becoming the exception rather than the rule in Africa, and the ruling Frelimo party has since picked Defence Minister Filipe Nyussi as its candidate.

Hopefully the elections will take place in a calm atmosphere for the region’s fastest-growing economy after opposition Renamo partisans carried out raids on police and military posts and ambushed vehicles along the country’s main north-south highway, threatening Mozambique’s two decades of peace.

Stability in Mozambique is key if major coal and natural gas investment projects are to bear fruit – schemes that could earn billions of dollars for a nation that is still largely very poor.

Botswana will also vote in October. Its political landscape is dominated by the ruling Botswana Democratic Party, poised to win its 11th general election in a row. The uniqueness of these elections is that they will take place at a time when Gaborone, home of the SADC headquarters, has broken ranks and refused to endorse the disputed election results in Zimbabwe when there was clear evidence of possible shortfalls. Botswana’s president, Ian Khama, blamed the regional body for failing to adhere to the guidelines it set for itself for free and fair elections.

It will be interesting to see how SADC reacts, considering that Khama’s government can ill afford to be holier than thou – democratic space is shrinking in Botswana, particularly in the media, and land rights for the indigenous Basarwa (Bushmen) are often abrogated in favour of minerals exploitation.

In November, Namibia will hold elections that will see the end of President Hifikepunye Pohamba’s two-term era. Once again, the liberation movement Swapo is expected to maintain its dominance.

The success of South Africa’s elections highlights the importance of building strong institutions that make democracies function well. The country’s Independent Electoral Commission conducted its constitutional duties in such a professional way that both winners and losers celebrated.

This gives South Africa the stature to continue pushing for equally fair elections in the SADC region – and, indeed, the rest of Africa.

South Africa should not accept or endorse electoral practices it would not condone back home.

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

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