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"Towards Sustainable Democratic Institutions in Southern Africa"

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"Towards Sustainable Democratic Institutions in Southern Africa"

The challenges of building and consolidating democracy in Southern Africa will be in focus at a major regional conference to be held in Gaborone, Botswana on May 8-10. The conference, titled "Towards Sustainable Democratic Institutions in Southern Africa" is being organized jointly by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), Government of Botswana and Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary and Election Fora.


Three Thematic Issues

I. The Election Management Bodies (EMBs)

II. The Political Party

III: Gender Equality and Women Political Leadership (Integral to the above themes)

Expected Long Term Outcome

The 1990s have witnessed a massive effort by individual nations and by the international community collectively, to transform the many dictatorial, single party governments around the world to democratic administrations accountable to the people, through regular, fair elections and through an array of representative institutions. Southern Africa has perhaps, more than other region, experienced the most dramatic transformation in this regard. The end of one party rule in Zambia, Lesotho and Malawi, attainment of independence by Namibia, cessation of conflict followed by successful multi-party elections in Mozambique and above all, the end to apartheid rule and a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa, were both dramatic and rapid. These welcome developments in a region long torn by racial and civil wars and general misrule, have however, created new challenges for democracy. Democratic institutions ranging from legislatures, local governments, electoral bodies, political parties, women’s groups, judiciaries, ‘watchdog institutions’, courts, academia, the media and civil society organisations are, in some cases weak or not fully prepared for democratic consolidation.

Elections are not synonymous with democracy but are an important ingredient of a functioning democratic system. This is particularly true if they are transparent, efficient and acceptable to all the contesting political parties as well as the voters who must have a guarantee that voting is meaningful. In Southern Africa elections are frequently characterised by disputes and inefficient administration (SADC/SAPES, 1999). Additionally, recent elections continue to be very costly to undertake. As an effort to legitimise elections many governments in the region have established independent electoral commissions (IECs). However, difficulties associated with recent elections in the region have revealed problems regarding the capacity of some of the IECs. There is need to focus support on these electoral bodies if they are to ensure creditable elections.

Many newly established democracies suffer from weak political parties, to a point where pluralism has not been established and there has been a return to de facto one party system. For instance in Southern Africa, the SADC Report on Governance and Human Development (1998) showed ruling parties in the region controlling between 59% and 100% of seats in parliaments. The 1999 elections in Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa saw the ruling parties increase their parliamentary majorities. In Zimbabwe, parliament has been dominated by one part since 1990. In Tanzania and Zambia bye-elections have seen seats originally held by opposition parties pass to the ruling party. Evidently this crisis, which is especially damaging to opposition parties, is growing in a number of countries in SADC region. The increasing nature of the problem points to a weakness with the political party as an institution. Although the questionable viability of non-governing political parties, and thus of an Opposition capable of providing a healthy democratic dialogue, is a world-wide issue, the current trend in the SADC region raises serious questions to long term sustainability of democracy in the region.

The political participation of women is a critical factor in the history, growth and realization of pluralist, vibrant and sustainable democracy. But this has been noticeably absent from the attention (or the support) of the international community so far. The issue of women's representation, even in established democracies, is inadequate and has not been resolved.

With four member States in the region, International IDEA whose mandate is promotion of sustainable democracy across the world is organising an international conference in support of democratic institutions in Southern Africa in May 2000. The conference will be held in partnership with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Elections and Parliamentary Forums in Gaborone, Botswana. Drawing on know-how from within the SADC region and experiences from around the world, the Conference will focus on the following three areas:

Three Thematic Issues

I. The Election Management Bodies (EMBs)

Admittedly there are many political institutions in SADC that require assistance to become effective and self-sustaining. However, some need more immediate support than others. Election Management Bodies (EMBs) and the political party seem to be the ones requiring most urgent attention. For instance, although most SADC countries with the exceptions of Lesotho, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo have smoothly passed through second multi-party elections, it is increasingly evident that much remains to be done to strengthen and support independent election management bodies if they are to become effective starting points of democratic governance. Election Management Bodies need to become central to the democratic process by becoming more independent, efficient, transparent and legitimate. Both the political parties and the general public in a number of these countries have reservations about the value-added by Independent Electoral Commissions (IEC). Yet in the past few years in Southern Africa one of the major concessions in the course for democracy was the introduction by almost all the countries of Independent Electoral Commissions (IECs). The IEC has become the voter’s hope for a free and fair election. Their performance significantly contributes to sustained popular participation in the electoral process as well as to the process’s acceptance by political parties. The IEC has the responsibility not only to ensure smooth and fair election but also to promote political participation of all eligible sections of the population. Through voter education and close consultation with political parties and civil society organisations, the IEC can also enhance women and youth participation in politics.

This conference will address the following questions related to the role of Independent Electoral Bodies:

  1. Using the most recent elections as evidence, provide a critical review of the general management issues of elections in Southern Africa;

  2. Examine the acceptability and legitimacy of IECs and propose measures for entrenching them as major organs of democratic governance;

  3. Identify and propose solutions to financial, personnel, legal and administrative factors directly hindering the IEC in the performance of their duties;

  4. Determine the extent to which an IEC encourages and can facilitate political participation of women, youth, minorities in the electoral process;

  5. Assess the extent and develop strategies which election management bodies can use to work closely and transparently with all political parties; and

  6. Discuss and recommend strategies of making election management cost effective and sustainable by individual governments.

II: The Political Party

The political party as an institution is in a state of crisis. While the myriad problems facing political parties in this region are not limited to or even peculiar to Southern Africa, the political scar of authoritarian regimes which preceded current democratic governments is still visible. Political parties here are far from being free, democratic, financially sound and publicly accountable institutions. Instead, internal wrangling, dominance by an individual leader, male dominance, lack of accountability and poverty characterise the state of most political parties in the region. The latter is particularly true of opposition parties. However, when out of government, as the experiences of political parties in Lesotho, Malawi and Zambia vividly show, former ruling parties are reduced into the same meagre condition. The need to identify the major problems facing political parties and addressing them should not be underestimated.

This conference will address the following issues related to the state of political parties in the region:

  1. Using their most recent performance in the latest election assess the democratic, organisational and financial preparedness of political parties in the region;

  2. Isolate common problems of political parties and identify strategies of resolving them;

  3. Using international comparative experiences, identify and discuss alternative strategies and options available for funding political parties;

  4. Identify other management, legal, institutional and organisational issues facing political parties and recommend programme(s) of support; and

  5. Discuss ways and recommend strategies for enhancing women leadership in political parties and other institutions of democratic governance.

III: Gender Equality and Women Political Leadership (Integral to the above themes)

The success of democracy in any part of the world depends very much on it representing and accommodating a cross-section of the population’s interests. Africa’s accommodation of gender, ethnic, youth and minority group interests is critical for a sustainable political system. Indeed the difference between democracy and other political systems is the ability of the former to deliberately accommodate different viewpoints, interests and broad categories of the citizens in the political process, institutions and leadership. Thus, parallel to the analyses of electoral management bodies and political parties it will be appropriate to raise the central question of how gender responsive the new democracies in the region are. Women political participation has been selected as one cross-cutting issue deserving immediate and sustained focus in the discussion of both the electoral process and strengthening of political parties.

The conference will devote various sessions to the discussion of:

  1. The state of women’s involvement in the political process in the region;

  2. Examining the legal, administrative and policy instruments in place to promote women’s political leadership at the regional and individual country level;

  3. Assess and recommend possible ways for electoral bodies and political parties to implement programmes of action in an effort to articulate and promote women leadership in politics; and

  4. Recommend other steps to enhance the long-term participation of women and other sections of the population in the political process.

Expected Long Term Outcome

The International IDEA is keen to work closely with national and regional institutions in SADC to promote sustainable democracy. It recognises that there are already a number of well organised regional and international efforts to assist for example, national parliaments, local government institutions, media, civil society organizations, gender promotion and strengthening of electoral bodies. IDEA always works in tandem and co-operation with others. It is therefore envisaged that this conference will further define the niche for IDEA in the SADC region as well as help it identify both strategic issues and partners for long term co-operation in supporting democracy.

Botswana Conference : Background paper
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