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The lessons not learnt

A sense of palpable deja vu must be shadowing Electoral Commission of Namibia (ECN) corridors in the tumultuous wake of last November's Presidential and National Assembly elections.

With everything that has happened since late last year's elections and everything that could still happen in the weeks and months to come, with the second-round of the electoral challenge by the nine opposition parties said to be headed to court sometime in early February, the quandary the electoral body finds itself in is a case-study in institutional inertia and what can happen when good advice and sound intentions are ignored and left to gather dust.

As it stands the ECN finds itself the vortex of the spiralling political uncertainty which has paralysed the political landscape since the launch of the election challenge by the nine opposition political parties, and all because it failed to proactively adopt its own advice of nearly five years ago.
In the process the electoral body, which given the serious nature of elections should always be an agency above reproach, has had itself reduced to the perception of a bumbling den of incompetents and political lackeys begging for a publicly humiliating flogging.

It is no coincidence then that two of the key issues being used by the opposition parties as attack points in their challenge of last year's election results happen to be issues which the ECN itself identified as enduringly controversy prone.
Back in 2005 electoral authorities produced a fairly voluminous report on the historic elections of November 2004 – which also went down in the history books for being the first major elections of which the results were challenged in a court of law – and explicitly identified the voters roll and the tendered vote as murky issues which had been used to cast doubts and suspicions on the credibility of the elections in question.

The ECN recommendations, to itself, in the report state: “a) Tendered system need (sic) to be reviewed if not done away with; b) That elections last for a day only; c) Counting be done at polling stations immediately after finishing of voting; d) Counting officials to be different from polling officials; e) That the number of young unemployed persons be limited and experienced and active retired officials who have done management and administration before be utilised”.
Judging by how things have unfolded during and after November's elections, it is clear, with the part exception of point c), that the electoral body roundly turned a deaf ear on its own advice and had basically sat on its hands, not to mention the report, since 2005.

With regard to the voters roll the report reads, “The Voters' (sic) Register is one of the most important instruments of an election process” and continues “significant needs identified included the computerisation of the voters register”.
However, while a digitised register was available at most polling stations across the country in last November's elections, in contradiction of their own sentiments, electoral authorities are widely perceived to have grossly mishandled the voters register in the intervening years from 2005 and as a consequence the voters register is now being used as a whip against the ECN.

And so it is that the report of 2005, which in many cases still fell considerably short of calling for much-needed widespread overhaul of the workings of the electoral body, has now come to stand as an indictment of the conduct of election authorities.
It is speculative whether the current legal stand-off, and largely unfounded whispers of a looming constitutional crisis, could have been avoided if only the ECN had followed through on its own recommendations of five years ago, but the question has to be asked whether it wouldn't have been infinitely better for all concerned, especially the electorate, for the responsible officials not to have reneged on the inherent promise of reform contained in the 2005 report?

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Election Watch is a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research in Windhoek, Namibia. Election Watch is funded by the European Union and the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives.