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Southern Africa Leaders Consider Regional Electoral Charter - 2004-08-16

Southern Africa leaders meeting in Mauritius are expected to adopt a charter establishing criteria for free and fair elections in the region.

Mauritian Prime Minister Paul Berenger urged regional leaders to respect democracy and free elections and adopt a common electoral charter. Mr. Berenger, who assumed the chairmanship of the Southern Africa Development Community or SADC, said that a country needs more than an independent electoral commission to ensure truly free elections.

"And as this new charter itself reminds us, really free and fair elections mean not only an independent electoral commission, but also include freedom of assembly and absence of physical harassment by the police, or any other entity, freedom of the press and access to national radio and television and external and credible observation of the whole electoral process," he said.

Mr. Berenger appeared to be referring to Zimbabwe, where widespread harassment and intimidation of opposition supporters occurred in presidential elections in 2002. He softened the implied criticism by saying that Zimbabwe is expected to hold free elections next year. He said ensuring free elections is the duty of all regional leaders.

"We heads of state and government here gathered have a duty to see to it that all elections taking place in our region later this year, in 2005, and thereafter, do fully conform to these democratic prescriptions, to which we are committing ourselves," he said.

Zimbabwe's planned electoral reforms, which have not yet been made public, are in response to pressure from regional governments to bring the country into line with the proposed electoral charter. But the reforms have already been criticized by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which says the proposals merely tinker at reform. It says a proposed electoral commission in Zimbabwe will not be safeguarded against manipulation by the president or the ruling party.

The two-day Mauritius summit will also consider a proposal that will bind member states to adopt legislation limiting the number of presidential terms to two.