Democracy Works Foundation (DWF) has organised a regional conference to enhance the credibility and public confidence in electoral processes in a fast-changing political environment across Southern Africa.
By James Chavula.
The conference to be held virtually from 29 to 30 April 2021 will bring together representatives of political parties, electoral management bodies and experts from Zambia, Malawi, Angola, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini where the foundation is implementing the Southern Africa Political Parties and Dialogue (SAPP&D) Programme.
The conference, which will be partly physical in Zambia, offers the target nations a platform to share lessons and make democracy work despite chronic and emerging challenges, including the Covid-19 pandemic.
Elections constitute an important pillar of democracy as they offer the citizens an opportunity to express their political will and enjoy their right to participate in government directly or through freely elected representatives.
The right is enshrined in constitutions of the participating countries in line with Article 21.1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Elections are therefore central in the deepening of democracy and the conveners find it heartening that in the past three decades, the right to vote and the rule of law have become core features of democracies across Southern Africa and beyond.
“Not only must elections be held as per the country’s constitutional requirements, they must also take place under conditions that permit the electorate, the contestants and other electoral stakeholders to participate meaningfully to the extent that the electoral process must be qualified to have been free and fair,” said Dr Augustine Magolowondo, Chief of Party for the SAPP&D programme at DWF.
Magolowondo is based in Malawi where the courts in 2020 nullified the country’s presidential election of May 2019 and ordered a rerun to be held within 150 days due to widespread irregularities. The fresh election held in June 2020 became Africa’s first court-sanctioned election in which an opposition leader defeated a sitting president.
However, the region’s first presidential poll held during the Covid-19 pandemic illustrated that while elections have become a permanent feature of democratic governance, the tricky environment where elections occur is constantly evolving.
It also set the pace for greater transparency and accountability in the region’s electoral culture as irregularities previously tolerated by the courts can render an election worthless.
The two-day conference presents political parties and electoral management bodies space to discuss familiar and unprecedented challenges.
Dr Magolowondo said ahead of the participatory conference: “This regional conference provides political parties and election management bodies in Southern Africa a platform to share experiences and best practices on how they can individually and collectively contribute to the holding of credible elections.
“By having Zambia as a host for this regional conference, we also seek to directly support the political parties and the Electoral Commission of Zambia to better prepare for their upcoming general elections to be held in August 2021 by drawing lessons and experiences from their counterparts in the region.”
The region has become a hotspot for disputed elections that personify a growing crisis of trust in how democratic institutions, particularly political parties and electoral management bodies, discharge their mandates.
The crisis somehow reflects increased awareness and activism and a call to electoral processes everyone can trust.
Besides, contemporary elections—like the general elections to be held in Zambia this year—are no longer national affairs, but barometers of efforts to entrench democracy.
This has increased scrutiny on the role of regional bodies such as the African Union (AU), South Africa Development Community (SADC), the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and the East African Community (EAC) in upholding democracy in their member states.
From post-election mass protests to court rulings, demands are growing that the regional blocs should enforce regional norms, standards and protocols for democratic elections adopted by member states. The yardsticks include the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance as well as the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections of 2015.
A realisation is gaining sway that elections constitute an international affair as the impacts of flawed electoral processes spill beyond the nations at risk of economic slowdowns caused by violent protests, instability and suspenseful court cases.
COVID-19 presents unprecedented challenges to different electoral stakeholders, including the way political parties mobilise and engage citizens. The campaign period is traditionally perceived as a game of numbers, but the contestants and their parties now face the life-saving demand to comply with COVID-19 preventive measures, including decongesting public rallies.
The coronavirus disease, which spreads fast in crowds, brings into question traditional ways of engaging voters that most political parties are accustomed to.
This calls for innovation and learning among political parties to remain relevant and to effectively engage the electorate.
Selective enforcement of COVID-19 protocols in favour of governing parties in some countries has also dialed up calls to level the playing field for credible, free and fair elections.
The interactive conference slated for Thursday and Friday this week offers parties to analyse the gaps and identify innovative solutions to the dilemma and effectively respond to the citizens’ aspirations.
The bodies constitutionally created to run elections also face a tight spot to carry out their legal mandates while safeguarding lives and human rights. This brings into play more players, including ministries of health and security agencies who enforce the dos and don’ts.
It is against this background that the DWF programme funded by USAID has convened the regional conference under the theme “Enhancing Integrity, Credibility, Confidence and Trust in Electoral Processes in Southern Africa: The Special Role of Political Parties”.
The conference is part of series of webinars held in July 2020, which also brought together political parties and EMBs from the region to share lessons on what works or doesn’t when preparing and conducting elections amid the global pandemic.
This regional learning event offers political parties a unique platform for sharing of experiences, best practices and lessons on what works and what doesn’t.
“The need for these regional level exchanges cannot be over-emphasised if political parties and other stakeholders are to innovate, adapt and remain relevant in contemporary times. The challenge, however, is how such exchanges can best be followed up if not institutionalised to become systematic, regular and responsive to the needs and aspirations of the relevant actors involved,” Dr Magolowondo explains.
The SADC Parliamentary Forum and the regional body’s Electoral Commissions Forum already have established similar platforms to facilitate the sharing of knowledge among lawmakers and electoral managers.
For political parties, however, such a regional platform does not exist. The conference provides an opportunity for political parties to jointly reflect on the need to create a regional forum where they can discuss and share experiences.
Apart from sharing experiences and best practices on how to build public trust in electoral processes, the conference hopes to improve the understanding of the roles, mandates and limits of regional bodies such as the AU and SADC