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Upcoming elections in Zimbabwe and DRC a bellwether for SADC and African democracy


John Stremlau is Honorary Professor, International Relations, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Between now and the end of 2024, no fewer than 22 national elections are scheduled in Africa, nine of them in SADC nations. Election observers have served, and must continue to serve, to prevent and mitigate violent conflict and the abuse of the rights of citizens to hold their rulers to account. 

In the era of democratic decline, signs of hope persist. One example in our region is the Electoral Support Network – Southern Africa (ESN-SA) which comprises domestic civic organisations of the 16 SADC states. 

Non-partisan observers must be allowed to hold governments accountable for holding periodic credible elections, as prescribed by the African Charter for Democracy, Elections and Governance.

Representatives of ESN-SA gathered in Johannesburg from 20-21 April 2023, with representatives of the Carter Center, to discuss the prospects for observing the next election in Zimbabwe later this year. No one was naïve. Several participants have undertaken to observe Zimbabwean elections since the 1980s. 

In 2013 I tried to get accreditation for Carter Center observers, but it was reportedly vetoed by the ruling party, Zanu-PF. And most of us have seen the recent investigative reporting by Al Jazeera, in the new documentary series Mafia Gold, about high-level international money laundering of Zimbabwean gold sales for personal gain and to buy electoral support for Zanu-PF.

ESN-SA believes the people of Zimbabwe and all other SADC nations deserve the dignity and rights of all people everywhere, and that shared commitment more than justifies the hard and sometimes dangerous work of monitoring and assessing voting in Zimbabwe and throughout the SADC region.

Between now and the end of 2024 in Africa, no fewer than 22 national elections are scheduled, nine of them in SADC nations. Two later this year are Zimbabwe sometime in July/August and the DRC in December. SADC country votes in 2024 include Botswana, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.

Similar regional groups have formed elsewhere in Africa. Most face varying degrees of political challenges nationally, imposed by official electoral management bodies, often dominated by the partisan interests of incumbent regimes.

Electoral principles and code of conduct

In 2005, a group of 23 international observer groups – non-governmental, governmental and multilateral, including the African Union – came together at the United Nations headquarters in New York to approve a Declaration of Principles and Code of Conduct for International Election Observation. Since then, the signatory groups have increased to 55.

And in 2010, the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors (GNDEM) was formed with the encouragement of, and associated with the international observer groups. GNDEM currently comprises 251 member organisations in 89 countries and territories, and nine regional networks with members in Africa, Asia, Europe and Eurasia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East/North Africa.

Domestic electoral monitoring groups are increasingly potent and essential in emergent civil societies so essential for sustainable democracies of varying types. But many still depend on foreign donors.  

SADC in many ways encompasses the complexities of global electoral politics. It contains a diversity of ethnic identities within and among its 16 states. All SADC governments claim legitimacy and authority rooted in the free will of their people. 

But regimes vary widely, from South Africa’s relatively large population pledging allegiance to an advanced constitutional democracy, to its small monarchical neighbour Eswatini, to the autocratic democracy of Zimbabwe, and the barely integrated resource-rich “state-nation” of the DRC. 

Yet all claim to be democracies and all hold periodic national elections, subject to some degree of domestic and international observation. 

When monitoring elections in SADC nations, domestic and international observers now have several authoritative standards to invoke as they negotiate mutually acceptable terms with national electoral management authorities.

The most immediate reference is their own SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections that were adopted by the SADC Summit in Mauritius in 2004. Another more general reference is the Guidelines for African Union Electoral Observation and Monitoring Missions.

Election obligations and standards

Election obligations and standards have been broadened and deepened over the last three decades. A courageous and resilient transnational community of domestic and international election monitors has emerged. Today they can draw upon an extensive array of electoral obligations and standards, based on extensive research and analysis.

The Carter Center recently released online, and formally on 28 March in Lusaka, Zambia, the second edition of an election assessment manual. The 332-page manual, first published in 2014, initially began as a 2006 project that stitched together a global group of legal scholars, representatives of international organisations and civic organisations that shared a common belief that democratic elections as credible assessments of citizen concerns could promote peace, equality and human rights.

To do so, however, electoral observation, no less than the democracies it seeks to sustain, must adapt to new realities. Several notable ones are evident in the second edition of Election Obligations and Standards. They include technological changes and access. 

Many have been beneficial, others less so. Social media and privacy issues are vulnerable to mis- and disinformation. Violence against women in politics has escalated and proliferated along with other threats to democracy — Covid, corruption and climate change have exacerbated inequality, poverty and unemployment in many of Africa’s fledgling democracies.

Election observers are human rights defenders

A telling reminder of the rising risks to election observers was a reiteration on 27 October 2022 of election observers as human rights defenders, in a statement that declared:

“Both national and international observers have reported a significant escalation in the severity and scale of attacks against them, ranging from harassment, false accusations, defamation and threats; to infringement on their right to free movement, detention, expulsion and physical violence.”

Observers can, of course, only operate once they have been accredited by a host country’s electoral management body. If successful, then they must be allowed mutually agreed access and protections from dangers cited by the UNHCR. Election observers have served and must continue to serve to prevent and mitigate violent conflict and the abuse of the rights of citizens to hold their rulers to account. 

Bellwether for democracy

SADC can continue to serve as a bellwether of indigenous democratic governance, abetted by domestic and international election observation.  The first and perhaps most important test of this will occur before 1 August in Zimbabwe’s 2023 national election.

The second could also be a harbinger for peaceful and productive national, regional and even global cooperation and development — December’s elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. DM


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