Five Southern African countries are preparing to hold crucial elections that could change the face of their domestic politics.
Voters in Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe all go to the polls in coming months to elect various officials ranging from local government representatives to presidents.
The most contentious ballots, though, will be in Madagascar and Zimbabwe, which have both been hamstrung by political impasses for years now.
In both countries, voters will pick representatives at all democratic levels.
And in both cases, contestation for seats is fierce and bruising Presidential battles await contestants.
Madagascar has the most hectic election schedule. Malagasy voters were scheduled to go to the polls on July 24 for the first round of Presidential balloting, with the second round to be held on September 25 along with a National Assembly poll. The electorate will also be at polling stations on October 23 for the local government ballot, which will be followed by the indirect election of Senators.
However, it is no longer clear when the Presidential ballots will be cast as the interim government is likely to postpone from July 24.
This follows a stand-off among the main political actors over who should and should not contest.
Interim leader Andry Rajoelina – who seized power from Marc Ravalomanana in 2009 with backing from the military – has insisted he will participate in the elections even though he had agreed not to contest as part of a SADC-brokered roadmap to restore constitutional order.
Rajoelina threw his hat into the fray after the wife of the man he ousted, Lalao Ravalomanana, successfully filed papers to contest for the Presidency.
The situation was further compounded when Didier Ratsiraka, a Former President who was himself kicked out of office by Ravalomanana in an earlier coup, also entered the Presidential race.
The AU and the UN have urged Rajoelina, Lalao Ravalomanana and Ratsiraka to all withdraw – but the likelihood of that happening is presently rather low.
** Make or Break
In Zimbabwe, the stakes are just as high.
The Presidential tussle between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai will make or break either man.
Many people believe President Mugabe wants victory to secure his legacy within the context of his land reforms and empowerment policies; while for Tsvangirai, a third loss to the incumbent could spell the end of his political career.
As in Madagascar, there is no definite date for staging of the elections.
However, the Constitutional Court has ruled that a poll must be held by the end of July so that there is no legislative vacuum seeing as the tenure of Parliament ends on June 29.
The court ordered President Mugabe to set an election date after the executive director of the Centre for Elections and Democracy in Southern Africa, Jealousy Mawarire, asked for an order compelling the Head of State and Government to do as much.
He argued that failure to set an election date infringed on his rights as a citizen and the court concurred.
SADC leaders were supposed to have met this past week to assist Zimbabwe raise funds for the elections, but insiders told The Southern Times that the government in Harare was working around the clock to get its own financing.
“President Mugabe does not believe in holding an election that is funded by outsiders, that is something that is generally unacceptable. He would prefer that his government funds itself on such key matters,” an official said.
University of Zimbabwe-based constitutional law expert, Professor Lovemore Madhuku, said SADC could no longer influence when elections would be held as had been agitated for by Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai wanted a SADC Extraordinary Summit to set an October election date. But with the Constitutional Court – which is the equivalent of the Supreme Court in terms of judicial hierarchy – having made its ruling, SADC will not want to be seen to be overruling a member state’s internal mechanisms.
“At the end of the day under the current circumstances, it is better for Zimbabwe to have a bad election than having no elections at all,” Prof Madhuku said.
He went on: “The logic of the judgment was that we must have all arms of the state all the time…The principle is that you must not have a vacuum.”
After an extraordinary summit of regional leaders on the sidelines of the 21st Ordinary Session of the AU General Assembly, SADC Executive Secretary Dr Tomaz Salamao said elections could not be postponed forever.
“We are basically waiting for the announcement of the day of the election so that we move this process forward,” Dr Salamao said.
** Dhlakama’s Last Stand
In Mozambique, voter registration for the November local government elections has resumed after logistical constraints had put the process on ice.
A shortage of card printers meant registration brigades could not issue voter cards that will be used in this year’s polls and the 2014 Presidential and Parliamentary ballots.
For Afonso Dhlakama, the rebel who became an MP and then reverted to rebel status again, the elections could mark his last stand.
Dhlakama briefly went to his old bush camp in the Gorongosa Mountains with a few hundred armed men after crying foul over – among other things – the rules governing this year’s local government elections.
Efforts at rapprochement by the government have failed and a fifth round of dialogue this past week ended in a stalemate after 20 hours of talks.
Renamo attempted to revive its position, which was defeated in a Parliamentary vote in December 2012, on what it called “parity” in the composition of the National Elections Commission (CNE).
It wants a CNE consisting exclusively of political party representatives, ie four from the ruling Frelimo, four from Renamo, four from the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) and two from extra-parliamentary parties.
Such a structure would mean the elections commission would be dominated by opposition parties.
The law provides for a 13-member CNE: eight representatives from parties in Parliament (five Frelimo, two Renamo and one by the MDM), three from civil society, a judge appointed by the Higher Council of the Judicial Magistracy, and an attorney appointed by the Higher Council of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
The meeting that started on June 10 and stretched almost until sunrise the next day did not make any headway whatsoever that government and Renamo even refused to agree to sign their own minutes of the deliberations.
The head of the government delegation, Agriculture Minister Jose Pacheco, said: only Parliament could change electoral laws.
But Renamo delegation head Saimone Macuiana claimed the two sides had a mandate to reach consensus.
In April, Renamo rebels killed four police details when they raided a provincial station to try and free more than a dozen colleagues who were in custody.
Tensions have been rising since police killed two men when they stormed Renamo offices in a northern town a year ago.
Meanwhile, the European Union has dismissed as untrue media claims that it would fund the municipal, Presidential and Parliamentary elections.
The elections will be funded out of Mozambique’s own state budget in line with a longstanding government promise to reduce dependence on foreign donors.
Mozambique relies on general budgetary support from the EU for a huge chunk of state expenditure.
It had been claimed by some newspapers that the EU was threatening to withdraw elections funding if the government did not reach an agreement with Renamo.
There will also be polls in Swaziland on September 20 to elect Parliamentarians.
The date was chosen “to allow all Swazis to participate in all the processes of the elections,” Gija Dlamini, head of the Elections and Boundaries Commission, told the media recently.
Voter registration began last month, with some 600 000 of the country's 1.1 million people thought to be eligible to cast ballots.
The other poll in SADC will be September’s indirect election of a President in Mauritius.
• Reporting by Farirai Machivenyika in Harare, Charles Mangwiro in Maputo, and Mabasa Sasa in Windhoek.