A new report says HIV/AIDS is hurting political development in southern Africa, in part by the loss of experienced politicians struck down by the disease. The group says southern Africa has only two percent of the world's population, but nearly half of the 38 million people infected with HIV/AIDS. VOA's William Eagle reports from Washington the report by a South African research group will be the focus of a panel discussion and webcast at the upcoming 17th International AIDS Conference in Mexico City.

The new report says there is an attack on democracy in southern Africa that no one is talking about - AIDS.  The study by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa aims to publicize what it calls the disease's silent impact on politics and electoral processes of the countries of the Southern African Development Community. 

The United Nations says the region has only two percent of the world's population, but nearly 70 percent of the 33 million people infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide. 

Legislatures at Risk

Among those most affected are the region's legislators.

The study notes a growing number of deaths since 1985 among politicians under 50.  Local media attribute the deaths to a short illness or unknown causes, despite the fact that politicians and the wealthy generally have access to good health care.

For example, between 1984 and 2006, well over half of all deaths that occurred in the parliament of Zambia are attributed to HIV/AIDS. During that period, there were 146 by-elections, compared to only 14 within a decade of independence in 1964.

The report says in Zimbabwe, death has now become the biggest cause of vacancies in parliament. Between 2004 and 2007, IDASA found that more than half of the by-elections held were due to MPs dying from undisclosed illnesses. The report says the numerous by-elections have worked against the opposition. In some cases it has lost a slim majority of the polls, partly because the ruling party has more resources for campaigning.

The study notes that most legislative bodies have not publicly addressed the issue. However,  the speaker of Malawi's parliament announced eight years ago that AIDS was responsible for 28 of the 31 legislators that had died between 1994 and 2000.  

Kondwani Chirambo is one of the authors of the study that looks at conditions in Namibia, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa, Senegal and Zambia, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe.

Opposite Distract:  Disease and Power

"There is tension between disease and power," says Chirambo. "Politicians will tell you once the [news] gets out, their own party can marginalize them, and the opposition can use HIV as a weapon in the electoral process."

"There is not a single member of parliament [in the region] that lives [openly] with HIV/AIDS despite the statistics," he continues. "[Because of the stigma], we know of only one [local government] counselor in South Africa [who is publicly] living with HIV/AIDS.  No legislator in [southern Africa] will admit to [carrying] HIV ...  They will only talk about being HIV-negative." 

Chirambo says the deaths often leave constituents without a representative to press for funds for local development.

"In countries like South Africa," he says, "there is an expectation of [improved] service delivery, and historically disadvantaged South Africans judge their local governments on the performance of their counselor [their local government representative]. [Discontent can lead to protests and instability] if that counselor dies or is ill and not able to meet the constituency's [expectations]."

Chirambo says there is also a literal price to pay: Funds must be made available to update voter lists bloated by the names of dead voters, and in some cases, to pay for by-elections to name new legislators. He estimates that about 20,000 voters die every month in South Africa, where health officials say almost 70 percent of deaths among people under 50 are AIDS-related. 

Different Systems, Different Impact

The study says AIDS has less impact in countries using proportional representation to choose parliament members, compared to those that elect directly by a simple majority of voters. 

With proportional representation, when a legislator dies another is chosen from a party list.  But in direct election countries, new elections must be called to replace legislators who have died.

The research from Tanzania shows that six constituencies on the mainland -- Kisesa, Mbeya Vijijini, Ulanga Mashariki, Kasulu Mashariki, Rahaleo and Kilombero -- had no MPs between 2000 and 2005. Their legislators had died during the 2000-2005 parliamentary sitting and no elections had been held to fill their seats. 

HIV / AIDS can also affect political movements. By-elections can also swing the balance of power in parliaments where one party holds a majority by only a slim margin.  Some activists say that in South Africa, the illness has disproportionately hit the staff and members of the Inkatha Freedom Party, based in Kwazulu-Natal Province, one of the country's regions hardest hit by HIV/AIDS.  

Tinkering along the edges

Chirambo suggests some changes for reducing the cost of replacing the legislators in these systems.

He says, "You can tinker with the system - amend the law so there are no by-elections, but [a] substitute system for each constituency - maybe running two [party candidates] for [office].  The second takes over [in case of death or illness]."

He says Senegal uses this method to replace legislators who are chosen directly by voters, rather than chosen by party list.

Parliaments can also encourage voluntary testing of its members, so they can get the necessary help in time.  He says Botswana and Lesotho follow this policy, though the legislators refuse to go public with the results, and the silent impact of the disease continues.