Opinion

Electoral accountability to be discussed now, not right before elections

Electoral accountability to be discussed now, not right before elections

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

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

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

Similarly, many countries have suffered frompolitical violence, capture of state institutions, militarisation and a deeperentrenchment of autocracy. In Zimbabwe, following President Robert Mugabe'souster, expectations were high that Zimbabwe would tread a more democratic pathunder Emmerson Mnangagwa. However, the 2018 general elections were contesteddue to irregularities and subsequent to that, the army opened fire onprotestors.

In Algeria, 81-year-old President AbdelazizBouteflika, who has been in power for over two decades, was forced to resignafter persistent public protests which sought reforms and an end to corruptionand cronyism. Despite his resignation, protests have continued as protestersdemand the prosecution of key elites. Moreover, elections which were supposedto take place on July 4, 2019 have been postponed indefinitely due to a lack ofcandidates.

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

Despite these worrying developments, someAfrican countries have made strides in democratisation. Nigeria, South Africaand Botswana are some of the countries that stand out. Although some majorelectoral issues still remain, Nigeria held its sixth general election sincemilitary rule that ended in 1991, and the country saw its first transfer ofpresidential candidates between opposing parties in 2015. In May, South Africaalso held its sixth consecutive general election. All of its elections to datehave been considered as free and fair. Botswana is another example. Sinceindependence in 1966, the incumbent Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) has won 11successful general elections which have also been recognised as peaceful, freeand fair.

However, although these countries show progressin democratic consolidation, studies reveal that the threat to electoralintegrity is greater in Africa than it is anywhere else in the world. It is forthis reason that the opportune time to convene a political summit on Electoral Accountability in Africa isnow.

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

In some countries such as South Africa, manyhave argued that there is a disconnect in accountability between members of Parliamentand voters. This is seen in that, in South Africa, although constituencyoffices exist, a significant number of voters don't know about them or whotheir parliamentary representatives are. Members of Parliament could do more tomake this information available to voters.

Otherrecommendations given to improve accountability include building theeffectiveness of small parties, recalling ineffective elected parliamentarians,introducing party primaries, having open party lists and parties makinginformation available on party finances. Investment in voter education iscritical as electoral accountability could also be improved through equippingcitizens with the tools required to keep their politicians accountable.

* My Vote Counts together with DemocracyDevelopment Programme will be hosting an Electoral Accountability Summit inAfrica taking place on 10 and 11 July at the Elangeni Hotel in Durban.Representatives from 10 African countries will convene to discuss electoralaccountability in their respective countries. For more information, pleasecontact Sthabiso at [email protected] orSheilan at [email protected].

My Vote Counts NPC isa non-profit company founded to improve the accountability, transparency andinclusiveness 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 andactive communities that can hold those in power to account.