As citizens in Southern Africa are rising to demand elections everyone can trust, political parties and election managers have no time to brink in the race to make democracy work and ensure every vote counts.
The role of political parties and election management bodies (EMBs) came under scrutiny on Thursday when former African Union director of political services Dr Khabele Matlosa opened the two-day regional conference organised by Democracy Works Foundation.
During the interactive conference, the keynote speaker urged the political parties and democratic institutions against doing business as usual as public trust is on the wane.
The eminent speaker took the participants on a political journey from the 1960s when most African nations attained independence to the restoration of democracy marked by flawed elections that disrupt political and economic stability beyond the affected countries.
“Today, we are faced with a possibility of retrogression as well as declining trust in elections and democratic institutions,” he warned.
Matlosa unpacked causes of breakdown in trust, confidence and integrity in electoral processes, saying credible polls are critical for peace and stability in the region.
“Public confidence in elections and democratic institutions is a key indicator of the maturity of democracy,” he said. The conference is part of a series of webinars convened under DWF’s Southern Africa Political Parties and Dialogue (SAPP&D) Programme funded by USAID. Its theme is “Enhancing Integrity, Credibility, Confidence and Trust in Electoral Processes in Southern Africa: The Special Role of Political Parties”.
The two-day learning conference comes just when political parties and EMBs in Southern Africa are struggling to regain public trust as the region has become the epicentre of some of the continent’s most disputed elections that spark violent protests and court battles.
SAPP&D Chief of Party, Dr Augustine Magolowondo, said the falling ratings of political parties, electoral disputes and increasing citizen awareness amplify the call for political parties in the region to learn from each other and learn together to effectively carry out their roles despite evolving challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
A streak of elections marred by violence, vote buying, manipulation of boundaries, misinformation, stuffing of ballot boxes and questions over the relevance of observers who downplay irregularities have become a gap of international concern. For half a decade, opinion polls by Afrobarometer have consistently indicated that over half of the citizens in the six countries do not trust institutions that are key to elections.
“Clearly, citizens are unhappy about our democracies and how we are managing elections. As a result, voter turnout has been going down from the transition period to the current year. There are only two countries in the region–Zambia and Botswana–where the turnout has increased. In the rest of the countries, it keeps declining,” Motlase observed.
The eminent speaker offered a six-point remedy to the worsening crisis distorting democracy on the southern tip of the continent. The recommendations included a call to deliberate efforts to entrench democracy within political parties, peaceful relations between competing political parties, regular review of political systems as well as establishing and strengthening complementary institutions such as multiparty liaison committees and peace commission to ensure that elections are peaceful.
Matlosa urged southern Africa to strengthen EMBs and give them “enough space and resources to operate impartially instead of manipulating them”.
He added: “There is a need to combat political corruption. Regulate party funding. Whether public or private as money can distort elections and democracy. As such, we need to address vote buying.
“We also need to entrench the role of civil society organisation and political parties in observing and monitoring of elections because local observers are more critical than international teams that fly in and leave after a brief period of time.”
The keynote speaker also advised political parties in the region to constructively embrace and manage diversity instead of riding on the divisive wave of ethnic and regional differences.
“The fact that we have diversity is not a problem. The problem is that we are politicising it. We need to depoliticise ethnicity and de-ethnicise politics,” he said.
Speaking shortly after Matlosa was Justice Dr Chifundo Kachale, the chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission. Kachale has become a face of a widely acclaimed re-run presidential election after the courts in Malawi nullified the May 2019 vote due to massive irregularities.
The events leading to the continent’s first court-ordered election to be won by an opposition leader shows that “it is possible for an electoral management body to lose public trust and regain it”, said Dr Magolowondo.
Kachale shared incisive reflections on how the commission navigated the turbulent period marred by mass protests, court disputes and government’s reluctance to fund the repeat poll to deliver an election widely pronounced credible free and fair.
“Soon after being sworn in, we had an honest and robust discussion of the lessons from the nullified election. We noted lack of public trust, so we had to be honest in our discussion and communicate regularly. This engagement with key stakeholders helped to assure Malawians and all players in the election that we were not coming to perpetuate the impasse but to be part of the solution,” he narrated.
Judge Kachale gave a glimpse of how flawed elections affect EMBs, saying the annulment of the presidential poll left the commission’s staff highly demotivated.
“We had to motivate them to see the re-run as an opportunity to remedy the situation and reclaim their reputation,” he recalled.
And he had a word for political parties and EMBs determined to sustain public trust in democracy.
“It is better to use constitutional processes to pursue legitimate political interests. In democracy, the rule of law is key and the ruling party needs to respect court rulings even at the risk of losing its hold on power,” he said.
The judge of the High Court of Malawi underscored the need to ring-fence funding for EMBs as a way of reinforcing their independence from overtures of governing parties.
“Where the EMB has an electoral calendar but has to go on its knees with a begging bowl, it creates serious problems. The EMBs need adequate funding and the money should be available when needed. The electoral process shouldn’t be undermined for political expediency or personal interests,” he said.
Kachale rose to the helm of MEC shortly after nationwide protests calling for the sacking or resignation of his predecessor for allegedly mismanaging the quashed presidential election held in May 2019.
He made a call for personal integrity among power holders to safeguard the credibility of democratic institutions.
“My own experience shows that we can’t run away from the fact that institutions are represented by people, so the public confidence in the institution is a reflection of the confidence people have in the people in charge of the institution. Power holders can undermine or strengthen the integrity of their institutions,” he said.
Dr Edge Kanyongolo, a constitutional lawyer from the University of Malawi, dialled up the call for strong institutions to make democracy work because “individuals come and go”.
“Talking about resilient democracy, we can speak of the institutions, but it all comes down to people. This is good and bad. Good people leave and good people die. As such we have to invest in building the systems themselves.”
Flawed elections are nothing without predictable incentives and penalties to force people to conduct themselves with integrity.
“We have been talking about the illegality of handouts, but we have accepted it as a right way of doing things. You cannot achieve integrity, legitimacy and trust if people aren’t being punished for buying votes and electoral violence. We need a system that punishes those who buy votes using handouts and those who perpetrate violence,” said Kanyongolo.
He described it as paradoxical in a society where everyone has to account to someone, that the police look on helplessly as political party agents give handouts and cause violence to win votes.
“What do you do if the police are doing nothing about it? You need to look at this as a chain of accountability. Every institution has another to hold it accountable. In Malawi, the Courts have been relied upon to ensure the police do their job, but who will watch the watcher if the Judiciary itself is lax or not independent? Can Parliament step in?”
Lungile Magagula, from the Elections and Boundaries Commission of Eswathini, said police inaction to electoral crimes is a regional problem that needs to be addressed urgently.
She also backed calls for reforms in the financial inflows for EMBs.
What makes EMBs independent?” she asked. “If an EMB is subjected to the same government procurement and funding procedures, then its independence becomes blurred. The electoral commissions need operational independence.”
The regional conference marked by a physical meeting in Lusaka, Zambia, also discussed the need for political parties to engage monitors with the capacity and know-how to keep an eye on the entire electoral process, not just polling. In her presentation, Fannie Nthakomwa, DWF’s Senior Technical Advisor and Zambia Country Director provided political parties with insights on how parties can undertake a robust and systematic election monitoring.
Victor Shale, the Director of Shaleton Electoral and Governance Consultants, called for greater interface between political players to improve poll watching which has brought into question the role of international observers.
“If only we establish rapport between political parties and EMBs as well as other players, poll watching will improve. However, even where EMBs have offered political parties an opportunity to enhance the capacity of its monitors, we have observed that there is no consistency but high turnover. You train one person today and a different one turns up tomorrow,” he explained.
He added: “If you involve young people in monitoring, you will discover that half the job is already done. The parties must scan the environment and motivate capable youth with requisite skills to volunteer and identify priority districts or polling sites where they can be deployed for close monitoring.”
He advised the political parties to embrace monitoring in the context of electoral cycle and law reform, instead of waiting for the polling day.
“When it comes to polling, the plane should be landing, not taking off. If it’s just taking off, it creates panic and suspicion.”
Concurring, Chimwemwe Chipungu, the electoral strategist for Democratic Progressive Party in Malawi said the last-minute deployment of monitors could be the major catalyst of persistent complaints of vote rigging and calls for nullification of elections
DWF, an independent think-tank formed to strengthen political systems and public confidence in democracy, across the continent, organised the regional conference to give political parties and EMBs to learn from each other.
DWF executive director, Olmo von Meijenfeldt, underscored the need for collaboration, learning and networking among political parties in the region.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has established specialised parliamentary and election management bodies’ forums, but no such interactive space exists for political parties.
Dr Magolowondo said the participants in the regional conference will discuss the possibility of forming a regional platform for political parties’ dialogue.
“Political parties play a critical role in democracy; hence, the need to create a forum where they can learn from each other and learn together. However, such a platform remains non-existent either because the parties do not see the need to share lessons or because we have not brought this matter to the table,” he said.
The regional conference sets the pace for the preparation of the country’s presidential elections slated for August.
By James Chavula