Overall, there has been some progress in the strengthening of the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) institutional capacities for political governance and the observation of elections since the launch of its second Strategic Indicative Plan of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation (SIPO II) in Arusha, Tanzania in November 2012.
SIPO is a five-year cooperation blueprint that provides guidelines on the strengthening of democracy and the promotion of peace and security in the SADC region.
SIPO II particularly places greater emphasis on the development of common democratic institutions and electoral standards by SADC member states, which has been identified by SADC as a persistent challenge.
A review of the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections has since been initiated in November last year, and is currently underway, placing the relatively unknown SADC Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) at the centre of policy change and implementation.
Not much is known about SEAC, despite its profound significance for democratic elections and good political governance in SADC member states. This may be attributed to its relative nascence, having been inaugurated in 2011, and its limited institutional capacity, among others.
But, given the scope of regional challenges to democratisation and the proper conduct of elections in the SADC region, an enhanced role for and engagement of SEAC could help SADC perform better in early warning, in conflict prevention and in helping develop common political institutions in SADC member states geared towards its objective of consolidating democracy.
The conduct of elections by some SADC member states is often inconsistent with the SADC Electoral Standards, and those of the African Union. Importantly, SADC Election Observer Missions (SEOMs) have had limited effectiveness in enforcing norm compliance and ensuring their scrupulous implementation thereafter.
Recent cases in point include disputed elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in November 2011 and those in Angola in August 2012, which were marred by reports of electoral fraud and irregularities. Their outcome and credibility remain contested and the post-electoral environment is still ripe for civil unrest.
SADC's resolution to create SEAC is an old one dating back to a 2005 SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government. Progress at institutionalising SEAC has since been painstakingly slow despite consensus among senior SADC officials that SEAC be established as a matter of urgency.
SEAC was inaugurated in April 2011 to enhance regional electoral standards, governance and democracy, by inter alia monitoring and evaluating elections in SADC member states; ensuring the application and review of the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections; facilitating the development of mediation strategies to address conflicts in the pre- and post-election period; coordinating all election-related work by the SADC Organ Directorate and the SADC Election Support Unit, which serves as its administrative unit; and facilitating lessons-learning and experience-sharing on electoral processes among SADC member states.
Located at the SADC Secretariat in Gaborone, Botswana, SEAC is composed of one country-nominated representative from each SADC member state - a full seating comprising 15 members in total.
There are currently 12 representatives out of the total 15, with membership from Madagascar (under suspension from active participation in SADC since its military coup in 2009), Mauritius and Swaziland forthcoming.
Also forthcoming are frameworks for collaboration with what SADC underlines as 'relevant SADC conflict prevention, management and resolution bodies and other related Pan African and international institutions'.
This should include SADC's key interface mechanisms - the SADC National Committees (SNCs) that are supposed to comprise government, civil society organisations and the private sector. Current research on SNCs points to them being either dysfunctional or non-existent in some countries.
Two other crucial institutions logical for SEAC collaboration are the SADC Parliamentary Forum, which has developed norms and standards for elections in the SADC region since 2001, and the Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC (ECF), which has had ad hoc links with SADC because it was established as an autonomous regional organisation operating outside SADC structures.
Some proverbial challenges to SEAC remain, including the political commitment of SADC member states to SEAC and full implementation of its mandate.
These old challenges, also being debated at the ongoing review of the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, are rooted in the legal reality of SADC's law and institutional structure.
On the basis of state sovereignty, the SADC election principles are not binding on SADC member states, since they have no legal status by virtue of being a protocol. Whether the 2013 review would recommend that the principles and guidelines be transformed into a protocol remains to be seen.
As such, SEAC is not in a practical position to effectively fulfil its mandate. The SADC Principles and Guidelines are subordinate to national laws, limiting SEAC insistence of their implementation. In addition, SEAC power and capacity to monitor the extent to which relevant authorities follow their advice and recommendations is currently very limited.
Indeed, strengthening SEAC in its work is not simply about better implementation of SADC policies and programmes.
It is also about how the SADC Organ Directorate, and SEAC in particular, attune to the needs and aspirations of ordinary people in the SADC region; how SEAC develops a conscious process of learning from past challenges on electoral matters and building on existing best practices pertaining to the enhancement of democracy and governance; how it defines, identifies and tackles challenges to political governance and democratic elections; and how it generates the political will and public support to meet those challenges.
Despite the generally weak powers of advisory bodies, given time and necessary support by SADC, SEAC could emerge as a legitimate and effective consultative mechanism on political governance and election matters. But there must be a demonstrable plan for how it is strengthening democratic institutions in practice and how it is building public confidence in electoral processes.
The test cases in 2013 for SEAC will include Zimbabwe, where a SEAC mission may reportedly be deployed for both the constitutional referendum and the subsequent harmonised elections; the August 2013 general elections in Swaziland; and those in Madagascar, tentatively scheduled for July.
For now, SEAC relations with and accessibility to civil society in the SADC region needs attention if it is to improve public legitimacy and its own effectiveness in the long term. Simply put, SEAC should seek to become an outward-looking organisation and make known to the general public and non-governmental bodies what it does and how it can be contacted.
Dimpho Motsamai, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria