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Elections: Independent Electoral Commissions

This evening in our on-going series on free, fair and credible elections, we will talk about independent electoral commissions – how they’re structured and what is expected of them.

Paul Graham is the executive director of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA). Speaking with VOA English to Africa Service reporter Angel Tabe, he explains why elections should be managed by an independent body. “Elections are about giving citizens a fair choice and contestants a free opportunity to compete, and therefore one wants to have an independent management body, not beholden to any of the political party interests in either the conduct of the election or indeed the counting of the votes and the announcement of the results.”

Graham says citizens cannot be immune from the politics of their country, but they should have a view of what is best for it. That is why he thinks the best arrangement for an independent electoral commission is to have candidates and representatives of the various political parties watch one another. As to whether political party members can be independent during an election, he said, “I do think it’s possible to find people who can rise above partisanship, who have already proven that in their day-to-day lives, either as judges, church leaders, citizens of repute in their countries, to oversee the elections. They will inevitably employ expert election officials to conduct the elections.”

Graham stresses the need for transparency, adding that appointments should be a public process guaranteeing job security (as electoral commissioners) beyond a particular election cycle. He says the commissioners must not have to fear that unpopular decisions could cost them their jobs.

Graham cites several countries as having reputable and relatively successful electoral commissions, including Nigeria, Malawi, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He says it’s up to the political parties and citizens to strengthen [their electoral commissions]. He says, “Critical to all this is to see development at the base – poor people prospering as a result of this democratic society being created. If that doesn’t happen, we really are not going to make it.”

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