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Emerging trends, motivations, challenges of electoral reforms



By Gray Kalindekafe:

Electoral rules can be chosen or changed for various reasons.

The drivers for electoral reforms or changes include factors as the existence of electoral threats, specifically the high perception of losing the next election under current electoral rules.

For the most part, electoral reforms in Africa have occurred as a result of a choice made by the incumbent government to secure political tenure in the face of mounting extra-institutional threat.

Such a threat emerges when the overall performance of the political system fails to meet some standards of electoral inclusiveness and when opposition groups, unable to influence any change through formal channels, mobilise masses and use extra-institutional pressure to threaten the survival of the ruling regime.

Various findings also suggest that electoral reform occurs as a result of an imposition or a negotiation (in which case they can be chosen by a consensus or via compromise).

In times of normal politics, incumbent politicians are likely to change the rule of the game when electoral threat is high and extra-institutional threat low.

However, in times of extraordinary politics— especially during periods of democratic transition when extra-institutional threat is high—politicians are likely to negotiate over electoral reform to secure their tenure.

It would be a grave mistake to assume that electoral reforms are the solution to political problems expressed in terms of dissatisfaction with the existing electoral system and to hope that these problems will disappear once the electoral system is reformed.

In most cases, electoral systems become entrenched and those parties which benefit from the existing system tend to reject reform, while losing parties agitate for reform to improve their chances of winning.

The African experience with electoral reforms magnifies what a number of commentators have referred to as the incompatibility of institutional and social determinants which inform the capacity of electoral systems to activate the formation of political cleavages independent of strong social cleavages based on ethnicity, culture, language and other attributes.

Such attributes, I hasten to add, might stifle the reforms and produce election results similar to those the election system designers are attempting to change.

Electoral system reforms are, at best, about redefining the losers and winners and improving the chances of those who feel aggrieved by elements of the existing system which narrow their electability.

In a deeper sense, electoral system reforms are about power shifts by electoral design which, like all power shifts, may engender turbulent political events and instability, particularly in cases when the prevailing

The topic of electoral management bodies (EMB) reforms involves many dimensions and can be driven by various factors.

These include a context of broader political reform, crises that exposed gaps in the implementation of electoral legislation or the initiative of the EMB in light of a recognition of shortcomings that require institutional renewal.

In reform processes, the issues of timing, political will and the role of government are critical. Broadly speaking, the purpose of electoral reforms must be to change the electoral system and processes to improve how citizens’ desires are reflected in election results.

Although reforms are most clearly visible when there is a fundamental change in the system, they are much broader and can be placed in three broad categories:

There are legal reforms which focus on improving the integrity and the environment where the EMB must deliver its services.

There are also administrative reforms, which focus on the introduction of innovation in the institution and procedures, so that the EMB is effective in its service delivery.

Finally, there are political reforms, which usual take place within the broader socio-economic context of the country of the EMB.

Political reforms are key as they often influence legal reforms and shape the extent to which EMBs are able to effectively implement other reforms.

Across Africa, many types of electoral reforms have been made and EMBs have been central in motivating and driving them.

Reforms are necessarily driven by context and in the case of legal reforms, focused on ensuring a fair playing field for political competition.

The trend across Africa also shows that legal reforms have been occupied with the contentious issue relating to political parties, such as funding, registration of political parties, internal democracy and nomination matters.

There is variety, however, on the drivers of reforms where, in some countries it is the EMB, while in others it is the law reform body or the courts.

What is consistent, however, is that parliaments are central to electoral reform processes and, irrespective of who is leading them, forward movement is impossible if parliamentarians and political parties do not participate effectively.

The pace and depth of reform processes are often shaped by where pressure is coming from and who is driving the agenda for reform.

They can be slow and limited in their scope so that contentious issues are not addressed. What is key, however, across all processes are the catalysts for reform.

In Africa specifically, a range of factors have contributed to electoral reforms. In some cases, reforms come about because of post-colonial factors.

In others, they are outcomes of peace processes where the groups responsible for post-conflict reconstruction efforts reforms imposed them.

There are also different modalities for implementing reforms, with some countries, such as Mauritius, using expert commissions to make proposals on specific matters that have constitutional implications and a direct impact on the composition of Parliament.

In other instances, such as Lesotho, reforms were trigged by the failure of the system in place (First Past the Post) to provide an accurate reflection in parliament, of the share of votes won by contestants.

In conclusion, Chief Justice Lehola stressed the dynamic nature of elections and the contexts within which they take place.

In this regard, the principle of impartiality by EMBs leadership must be upheld. EMBs must also be agile and accept the frequency for period reforms as part of the natural evolution of democratisation.

The author is writing in his own capacity as a governance, elections, human rights and civic education specialist

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