Electoral accountability to be discussed now, not right before elections

2019-07-07 07:00
A man casts his ballot as part of the vote for the European parliament elections at a polling station on May 26, 2019 in southern Milan. (AFP)

A man casts his ballot as part of the vote for the European parliament elections at a polling station on May 26, 2019 in southern Milan. (AFP)

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Twenty-four countries across the continent of Africa are holding elections this year. These transitions in leadership provide an opportunity to entrench democratic political systems and to gauge the effectiveness of institutions mandated to safeguard our democracies.

Free and fair elections are an essential means of accountability and are the cornerstone of a democracy. Unfortunately, many of Africa's past elections have been mired in controversy. Research indicates that more than half of Africa's ongoing conflicts are a result of claims over legitimacy which poses a massive security risk. For example, on several occasions, Kenya has experienced post electoral violence. In 2017, violence flared in Kenya after the Supreme Court took the unprecedented step of annulling the August presidential election due to irregularities and illegalities. But that paled in comparison to the highly controversial 2007 elections where over 1 000 people died from ethnic political violence.

In Nigeria, violence during state level and national elections is still a major concern. In 2011, it was estimated that over 800 Nigerians died as a result of post-election related violence. But although significant improvements have been made since then, elections are still contentious. For instance, this year, Nigerian President Buhari faced scrutiny for suspending the chief justice three weeks before the February election for failing to declare his assets. Additionally, the electoral commission's decision to postpone the election by a week caused major controversy and impacted voter turn-out.

Similarly, many countries have suffered from political violence, capture of state institutions, militarisation and a deeper entrenchment of autocracy. In Zimbabwe, following President Robert Mugabe's ouster, expectations were high that Zimbabwe would tread a more democratic path under Emmerson Mnangagwa. However, the 2018 general elections were contested due to irregularities and subsequent to that, the army opened fire on protestors.

In Algeria, 81-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has been in power for over two decades, was forced to resign after persistent public protests which sought reforms and an end to corruption and cronyism. Despite his resignation, protests have continued as protesters demand the prosecution of key elites. Moreover, elections which were supposed to take place on July 4, 2019 have been postponed indefinitely due to a lack of candidates.

Correspondingly, after a military coup that ousted strongman Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, a segment of the army annulled an agreement with protesters who were demanding the establishment of civilian democratic rule. The military announced that it will no longer negotiate with protesters and has called for elections within the next nine months.

Despite these worrying developments, some African countries have made strides in democratisation. Nigeria, South Africa and Botswana are some of the countries that stand out. Although some major electoral issues still remain, Nigeria held its sixth general election since military rule that ended in 1991, and the country saw its first transfer of presidential candidates between opposing parties in 2015. In May, South Africa also held its sixth consecutive general election. All of its elections to date have been considered as free and fair. Botswana is another example. Since independence in 1966, the incumbent Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has won 11 successful general elections which have also been recognised as peaceful, free and fair.

However, although these countries show progress in democratic consolidation, studies reveal that the threat to electoral integrity is greater in Africa than it is anywhere else in the world. It is for this reason that the opportune time to convene a political summit on Electoral Accountability in Africa is now.

The need for electoral reform is often brought to the fore just before elections. However, this is problematic as it is impossible to enact the required reform in such a short amount of time. While it is critical to address our imminent electoral challenges, it is also important for us to take the long view.

In some countries such as South Africa, many have argued that there is a disconnect in accountability between members of Parliament and voters. This is seen in that, in South Africa, although constituency offices exist, a significant number of voters don't know about them or who their parliamentary representatives are. Members of Parliament could do more to make this information available to voters.

Other recommendations given to improve accountability include building the effectiveness of small parties, recalling ineffective elected parliamentarians, introducing party primaries, having open party lists and parties making information available on party finances. Investment in voter education is critical as electoral accountability could also be improved through equipping citizens with the tools required to keep their politicians accountable.

* My Vote Counts together with Democracy Development Programme will be hosting an Electoral Accountability Summit in Africa taking place on 10 and 11 July at the Elangeni Hotel in Durban. Representatives from 10 African countries will convene to discuss electoral accountability in their respective countries. For more information, please contact Sthabiso at sthabisom@ddp.org.za or Sheilan at communications@myvotecounts.org.za.

My Vote Counts NPC is a non-profit company founded to improve the accountability, transparency and inclusiveness of elections and politics in the Republic of South Africa. The Democracy Development Program (DDP) aims to deepen the practice of democracy in South Africa. We build strong and active communities that can hold those in power to account. 

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