On what has been hailed as a great day and a milestone for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, the plenary assembly session of the SADC parliamentary forum recently adopted the first ever SADC model law on elections.
The chairperson of the SADC parliamentary forum’s standing committee on democratisation, governance and human rights Wavel Ramkalawan from Seychelles, moved for the adoption. He argued that the new model law is a “very relevant tool that would assist SADC member states to incorporate provisions of the revised SADC principles and guidelines governing democratic elections and other regional and international election instruments into national legislation and policy”.
The plenary complied and passed the soft law.
In an interview, Boemo Sekgoma, the acting secretary general of the SADC parliamentary forum said the unanimous adoption of the model law on elections by the region’s parliamentarians who themselves are products of elections, was significant.
“They are the same people mandated with the responsibility of ratifying regional and international election instruments so that they are incorporated and implemented at national level,” she said.
She said often when observer missions make recommendations, a number of them relate to the need to review the legal framework governing the management of elections.
“Elections, particularly election observations are an oversight activity, and therefore elections sit very well within SADC parliamentary forum.”
The SADC parliamentary forum has been associated with the election process in the SADC region since 1999. When in 2001 the forum adopted norms and standards for elections in the SADC region, it became the first such instrument in SADC and on the African continent.
“The development and adoption of the model law marks another milestone but more importantly is a progressive effort by parliamentarians to help member states to continuously improve the management of elections. This is consistent with election observation mandates where whenever we observe elections we end with recommendations on areas that require improvement,” Sekgoma said.
She explained that the SADC model law on elections is also important because it is an instrument being developed by parliamentarians to operationalise the provisions of the revised SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.
“Normative standards for elections imply common standards and also imply a common approach by member states. Against a background where our legislative frameworks are rooted in different legal systems and history, the model law becomes a tool that helps member states to easily harmonise consistently with regional integration objectives,” she said
Sekgoma said the realisation of the gap between policy and practice had necessitated the model law on elections.
“We do not have a problem of instruments. We have a problem of gaps of implementation. So for member states when they want to operationalise what have become not just norms and standards, but obligations, the challenges are always: how do you filter down these obligations, provisions, principles and guidelines to be reflected in the national legislative frameworks?”
She said by adopting this model law, parliamentarians were facilitating a process they have already started through election observation where they have made recommendations to close certain gaps.
“The model law also brings in a very comprehensive approach because it is anchored on the election cycle. So it covers virtually anything and everything related to elections in terms of what member states are required to do within that cycle of five years during the pre-election, the election phase, and post-election phase including the requirement for audits, and all that goes with it.”
In developing this model law, the SADC parliamentary forum worked closely with the SADC Electoral Advisory Council and election management bodies under the auspices of the Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC countries. Electoral management boards have the sole mandate of organising elections.
The SADC parliamentary forum also worked with the SADC Lawyers Association; the SADC Council of Non-Governmental Organisations; United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); United Nations Department of Political Affairs; and the African Union, especially the African Governance Architecture, which has the responsibility of monitoring the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance among others.
Experts say a model law must be developed in such a manner that it has so much commonality that it can be easily adopted or adapted by member states as they develop their own national laws and policies.
Member states had already agreed on a common framework through the SADC Treaty; through the Treaty on the Organ on Politics Defence and Security Cooperation. They had also agreed through the revised Principles and Guidelines, on a common framework.
Accordingly, the new model law seeks to operationalise already existing obligations. Although not binding, model laws bring in the flexibility that recognises that member states are at varying stages and therefore each different country will adopt and adapt different components depending on the gaps that exist.
With the model law on elections now adopted, Sekgoma said the SADC parliamentary forum would now focus their efforts on operationalisation; engaging SADC member states based on the election calendar.
The revised SADC Principles and Guidelines require member states to engage in an all stakeholder post-election evaluation where they conduct audits of what happened and where gaps are.
In the short term, the SADC parliamentary forum will finalise the process of editing and translating in line with the SADC parliamentary forum language policy that incorporates three languages that reflect the linguistic [English, French and Portuguese] and historic diversity of the region.
Expectations are that the new model law would give impetus to on-going calls to make elections accessible to the people and a means to more democratisation and more development that brings about practical benefits and improvements in the lives of the people.
*Moses Magadza writes from Maputo, Mozambique.