The benchmarks developed by regional parliaments to guide their reform processes will drastically improve their performances, SADC Parliamentary Forum Programme Manager for Democracy and Governance, Sheuneni Kurasha has said.
Speaking in an exclusive interview at the Gaborone Sun hotel last week, the Zimbabwean national, currently based in Windhoek, Namibia, was confident about the outcomes envisaged under the benchmarks. These are basically “minimum benchmarks,” designed to guide legislatures in the SADC region to conform to democratic practised. Some of these values could already be embedded in respective countries’ constitutions or practiced as a ‘value system,’ whereas in other parliaments they may be alien practices. The rationale behind the benchmarks for democratic legislatures in Southern Africa is that, “strong parliaments create strong democracies,” explained Kurasha. He says that democracy is “organic” and anchored by strong institutions, which provide for checks and balances in the relations between the governed and the governors. For example, he says there ought to be frameworks in democracies that provide mechanisms for the electorate to hold their representatives to account. This is paramount in democracies.
It is the rule of thumb that has brought about the principle of separation of powers. Under the benchmarks and the accompanying Toolkit, legislatures will be expected to assess themselves against a set of values, to see if they measure up to the standard of democracy. The benchmarks, says Kurasha, were developed by the SADC parliaments themselves and have already been endorsed. The recent national consultative workshop held in Gaborone, Botswana was the first in a series of workshops designed as pilots to domesticate and institutionalise the benchmarks as well as operationalise the toolkit. The other countries earmarked for the pilot workshops are Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, which incidentally is getting ready for elections this year. Agreeing on the benchmarks was however, not an easy ride admits Kurasha. Legislators heckled and in some cases failed to reach consensus in some of the areas or values that should be adopted as benchmarks. Although the SADC PF borrowed heavily from Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s Recommended Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures (2005), the Inter-Parliamentary Union Parliament and Democracy in the 21st Century: a Guide to Good Practice (2006), and the NDI compendium called Towards the Development of International Minimum Standards for Democratic Legislature (2006), the legislators were alive to the fact that “every parliament is a product of its own country’s history and culture.” As a result the values and practices found in, for example, the DRC (French speaking SADC country) or Mozambique (largely Portuguese speaking) and Botswana (English speaking) were brought to the table and adopted where consensus was reached.
Kurasha commends the SADC region as “stable” and free from military coups hence its ability to influence change and “sustain gains made.” He says the region has a relatively young history from its emancipation from colonialism, the liberation struggle, burden of exile by its leaders and the taking up of nationalism struggle. Compared to some of the more mature democracies in the world, he says SADC fares pretty well in this aspect. This explains why the SADC PF is the first to develop a set of benchmarks to define the minimum standards for good electoral conduct, systems and processes in Southern Africa known as Norms and Standards for Elections in the SADC Region. For Kurasha the benchmarks for democratic legislatures in Southern Africa will go a long way in deepening democracy in the region. They will engender a sense of continuous debate between the electorate and the politicians, and instil a sense of legitimacy in parliaments through honouring the social contract that MPs enter into with citizens.
They will also help national parliaments to share experiences. Among the standards espoused by the benchmarks are accessibility of Parliaments; ethical governance; representativeness; organisation of parliament; the legislative and oversight functions. It was however unfortunate that the turnout of MPs at the Gaborone consultative workshop left a lot be desired. Perhaps MPs ought to do a self-introspection immediately and see if they are fit to be called Honourable Members.