The SADC Parliamentary Forum and SADC National Parliaments have been challenged to promote electoral integrity in the SADC Region as many member states prepare to hold general elections this year and next year.
South African Member of Parliament Stevens Mokgalapa made the call when he moved a motion during the 43rd Plenary Assembly Session of the SADC PF which took place in Angola recently.
The SADC Region is bracing for a busy election season, with nine general elections scheduled between 2018 and 2019. This year, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Kingdom of Eswatini, Madagascar and Zimbabwe, will hold general elections. Next year, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa, will also head to the polls.
Regular elections have become the norm in accordance with national electoral laws as well as regional, continental and international instruments on elections, democracy and governance.
Mokgalapa said although the capacity of the African Union and regional economic blocs to observe elections had grown over the years resulting in an increase in election observation missions whose mandates and methodologies are anchored on international standards, a lot still remained to be done to ensure the integrity of those general elections.
"Despite major developments in elections observation and monitoring in Africa, elections on our continent (have) remained marred by irregularities and bad practices which compromise their integrity and therefore their value to the democratization process," he said.
Quoting the former Secretary General of the United Nations Koffi Annan, Mokgalapa said there was need to ensure that elections are conducted with integrity, based on democratic principles and political equality, and are run professionally in a transparent and impartial manner.
He explained that electoral integrity in Africa was measured, for the first time, in the Electoral Integrity Project's Electoral Integrity in Africa (2015) report.
"The results of the PEI survey, which are based on all African countries that held elections between 1 July 2012 and 31 December 2014 found, amongst others, that the degree of threats to electoral integrity is more severe in Africa when compared to the rest of the world, although the challenges in Africa are similar to those found globally - where the continent and the SADC Region scores 58 out of 100, against the global average of 64."
Botswana MP Dithapelo Keorapetse concurred.
"As MPs we have a duty to make sure that the legal framework governing elections in our Member States, in particular the electoral systems, are inclusive and serve to secure and guarantee the expression of the will of the people... In the absence of credible elections, citizens have no recourse to peaceful political change. The risk for conflict increases while corruption, intimidation and fraud go unchecked," he said.
He added: "We still have instances where opposition parties and their leaders are ill-treated. Some are imprisoned and charged with frivolous and vexatious charges including but not limited to treason. We still have instances where some governments seek to introduce electoral voting machines with the sole purpose of undermining the integrity of the vote."
He said MPs must use their oversight mandate to ensure that their Member States comply with electoral standards, principles and obligations as contained in various election instruments.
Another lawmaker from Botswana, Duma Boko said Keorapatse's motion was loaded and merited more interrogation.
"This motion without being explicit, tells us that there are problems with the management of elections in the SADC Region. The motion calls upon us to do something, and in this case it says we must remain committed to ensuring that our elections have some integrity. It does not tell us how we can do that and the problem we run into is that all countries that are going into elections will all say that they are committed to holding free and fair elections."
He said more needed to be done.
"It seems to me that we need to go a street further and concretize what the issues are so that we can proffer pointed responses or propositions in relations to this Motion," he said.
Boko said in some countries the mere holding of a march required sanction by the police under the excuse of maintenance of law and order and peace. He argued that in many instances, political parties that apply to the police to hold peaceful rallies or demonstrations that require moving around while holding placards, are denied the opportunity with the police arguing that they do not have the manpower to accompany them in the march.
"This thwarts and frustrates the ability to put across any message. This is a problem in our region."
He argued that the challenges that political parties and the electorate face as a result, results in what he described as a "desertion of the polling booth" some voters.
"Many people who register to vote - at least in my country 25% - don't pitch on election day. Why? It is because some of them don't believe in the integrity of elections, and they decide to stay home. That is not apathy; that is not disaffection. It is a protest! They are saying: 'We don't believe in this nonsense, and we will not legitimize it by participating in it.'"
He added: "We have a desertion or a rejection of the polling booth by young people in part because they don't see themselves properly represented or their views taken on board and so the electoral process is, in so many respects, a farce."
His view was that for the Region to really have credible elections, lawmakers must go beyond meeting formal requirements (such as whether there is a polling booth; whether voting is being done privately; or whether there has not been violence and intimidation).
"We need to go down to issues of substance and ask whether these elections are fair. Many of our elections are not, but the missions we send to these countries come back and return a verdict of free and fair."
He said in some countries like India, there was a limit on electoral expenditure and rigorous audits after every election.
"Maybe it's about time we introduce some rigorous controls in our electoral systems... We need to be more pointed in our demands and requirements."
South African MP Siphosezwe Masango encouraged African Member States to be open and receptive to constructive criticism.
"I think we must welcome African leaders and scholars who are very critical of some of our omissions and weaknesses. That (their constructive criticism) doesn't make them less Pan African or less patriotic in their respective countries... One of us most correct our weaknesses."
He challenged African lawmakers to ensure that their governments truly reflect the will of their people.
"Those of us who fought for liberation must accept that once there are weaknesses and serious omissions, the collective will of the people may result in the transfer of power to the opposition because the opposition political parties in our countries are not enemies, but strategic opponents whom we must defeat or (who) must defeat us (on) the superiority of ideas that can be put to the electorate.
If we don't accept this, we will stay on and degenerate into electoral fraud and become illegitimate governments." Botswana's MP Polson Majaga also weighed into the debate and urged SADC Member States to embrace gender equity across all political parties.