Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Sierra Leone Poll - an Example of the Elections We Want

THE recent presidential and parliamentary elections in Sierra Leone where the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), under the auspices of the African Union (AU) and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) sent some observers were an eye-opener and a living testimony of how other African countries have evolved democratically.

Most importantly, the Sierra Leone elections exhibited the gateway to electoral credibility in a country whose previous elections were littered with irregularities.

What struck the ZESN team most was the amount of trust that the electorate, the political parties, civil society and government had in the National Electoral Commission (NEC), the body tasked with running the elections in the country. Other than the fact that the commission is truly independent of government, the idea that it is headed by a person whose public profile attracts approval and contentment from all sectors of the society is neither here nor there.

The Sierra Leone experience showed the need for a truly independent electoral commission headed by a credible individual whose moral aptitude is beyond reproach if elections were to be credible in this country. In the case of Sierra Leone, the NEC chairperson is a trustworthy and incorrigible professional whose appointment was acceptable to all stakeholders in the electoral process. That Dr Christiana Ayoka Mary Thorpe, the head of NEC is a nun and a devout Christian are not the only facets of her profile that made her acceptable, but that her vision, that of bringing credibility into whatever she does, weighed in heavily towards her universal acceptance in the electoral process is never in doubt.

What a country that has had a history of disputed elections needs is a transparent, people-driven electoral process that could suddenly bring trust where there is mistrust, satisfaction where there is suspicion and credibility where the song has always been fraud and post election litigation. This, however, comes with the appointment of a truly independent electoral management body whose secretariat is professional and whose terms of reference are non-partisan.

"At NEC we're doing our best to establish credibility in all what we do. Our approach has been to get everybody in the process and let the nation know that collectively we all have a role to play in ensuring that the elections are credible and acceptable," she told one journalist.

Clearly, fostering credibility is what she did. Party activists and polling staff involved in irregularities during the local elections in 2004 were purged during the staffing of NEC for the 2007 elections. NEC officials numbering 1 500, who were implicated in electoral fraud-related accusations in 2004 or those who were found to be party activists, were dismissed in the chairperson's attempt to come up with a truly independent and professional team that would ensure the elections are credible and acceptable.

Furthermore, in its endeavour to "get everybody into the process," NEC created a platform through which political parties interacted with it to input suggestions and recommendations for electoral reform that were in tandem with its goal of ensuring a credible free and fair election.

Consequently, NEC supervised the establishment of the Political Party Liaison Committees (PPLC) at national and district levels to register, regulate, monitoring adherence to the code of conduct and mediate disputes among political parties. In addition, it provides political parties with opportunities to request additional information and challenge NEC's decisions on various aspects of the electoral process.

Despite the logistical challenges the political campaigns were visible and vigorous. ZESN officials were impressed by the scheduling of campaign activities for different political parties on different days to reduce political clashes and tensions. They did not witness incidences of violence. Furthermore no campaigns were observed after the 24 hours deadline before election day and on election day.

The process of voter registration that NEC embarked on was another major stride towards ensuring that a lot of people participated in the election process. According to the European Union Observer Mission (EU OM) about 2 619 565 people registered to vote. This is 91% of the total number of people eligible to vote in the country. Apart from people participating as voters, 35 domestic organisations and 5400 local observers were deployed to observe the election covering 87% of the polling stations open on election day. The same observers were also accredited to observe the voter registration and delineation of boundaries exercises.

It is our submission that our own electoral management body could learn from Sierra Leone the importance of having total figures of people eligible to vote in the country and making them public so that when they announce the percentage number of people registered in the voter registration exercise, people would have a benchmark on which to refer to.

That the 2.6 million registered to vote in the Sierra Leone election constitute 91% of the total number of people eligible to vote gives the voter registration exercise credibility as an exercise that sought to ensure everyone eligible to vote was registered. However, in our case, it is very difficult to appreciate the 45 000 voters registered so far in the on-going mobile voter registration exercise as a milestone in ensuring popular participation in the electoral process. According to ZEC (Herald 9 August 2007), the 45 000 registered is a significant number but one would question its significance vis-à-vis the unknown total number of people eligible to vote who were targeted by the exercise.

In order for an election to be credible, it is key that there is constant communication between the electorate and the electoral management body through different media available in the country. In Sierra Leone communication was always available.

ZESN officials noted that public debates and forums were conducted by the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists. This gave citizens an opportunity to hear political parties' policies and manifestos in order to vote from an informed position.

According to the NDI preliminary report, "NEC regularly and effectively communicated information about the process to voters, political parties and the over 37 000 polling staff" it had. NEC also established a permanent two-way dialogue with political parties through the Political Parties Liaison Committee (PPLC) to inform them of the process and incorporate their feedback. For instance, the NEC made an important change to the electoral procedures the week before the polls in response to concerns raised by political parties during a PPLC meeting.

In addition, NEC made a provision that voters who lost their voting cards but their names still appeared on the register could get a certificate two weeks before polling day to enable them to cast their vote on election day.

NEC also pressured parliament for reforms and urgent positive changes to the Electoral Laws Act were passed in June 2007. Parliament established the Elections Offences Court, a subdivision of the High Court with jurisdiction over electoral offences of criminal nature. This innovation built confidence among stakeholders in that there were legal processes to address issues of an electoral nature. The Election Petitions Court was also established under the Elections Laws Act. It provided mechanisms essential for the hearing of electoral civil offences such as disputed results. These two courts provide political parties a legal process to resolve their disputes without resorting to violence, or taking the law into their own hands.

The timetable for petitions was also improved with the introduction of a new set of provisions stipulating that petitions must be submitted within seven days of the official announcement of results and should be concluded within four months.

NEC also ensured the whole voting process was people oriented as special treatment was accorded to groups of people with special needs during voting. The elderly, pregnant women and those with babies were given preferential treatment on voting day. In another positive development, tactile ballot guides for the blind were available in polling centres. Provisions were also made for the old and illiterate voters to cast their votes without assistance.

There are three ways that a choice can be registered in Sierra Leone, by marking an x on the choice or putting a tick. Alternatively voters may use ink that is provided in the booth to mark their ballot papers. This meant that the aged and illiterate were able to cast their votes without assistance from polling officials. This is particularly important in Zimbabwe where we a have a huge number of "assisted" voters.

NEC also made the processing of voters smooth and fast by the provision of more than five polling stations in one centre. Despite voting starting at 7AM and officially ending at 1700 hours, by 1500 hours no queues were noted and this enabled counting to start immediately thereafter when it was still daylight. This is unlike in our case where polls close at 7PM when it is dark thereby increasing chances of cheating during the counting process. The counting was conducted in a transparent manner and immediately copies of the results were posted on the walls outside polling stations for the public to see.

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