In South Africa, the Electoral Act contains an Electoral Code of Conduct aimed at promoting “conditions that are conducive to free and fair elections” and that create a climate of tolerance, free political campaigning, and open public debate. The Independent Electoral Commission oversees the country’s election process and will be expected to uphold the values on which it was founded in the lead up to, and following the 3 August local government elections.

Several political analysts and researchers have referred to this year’s polls as the most hotly contested and not without their share of scenes of political intolerance and in some cases, violence. The final part in our mini-series on political funding takes a broader look at integrity in African elections – catch up on parts one and two.

As its name suggests, the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) studies electoral integrity around the world, considering such notions as why electoral integrity matters, why elections fail, and what can be done to address these problems. In 2015 the project published its first study focusing on a specific region, Africa, whose elections are under-studied in comparison with Europe or America.

Electoral integrity refers to international standards and global norms governing the appropriate conduct of elections. These norms will apply during the pre- and post-election period, as well as during the campaign and on voting day.

Its opposite is electoral malpractice, which may include electoral and ballot access laws favouring incumbents, an uneven playing field in money and media during campaigns, voter intimidation, inaccurate voter registers, corruption, flawed counts or vote-rigging, and partial electoral management bodies. In her book Electoral Malpractice, author Sarah Birch defines it as “the manipulation of electoral processes and outcomes so as to substitute personal or partisan benefit for the public interest”, which is close to our own definition of corruption.

The EIP study aimed to present the African results of the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) expert surveys, and then to analyse important elements at play in shaping the integrity of African elections. It’s not only voting day and the related organisational process that are important, but the researchers found that many other elements of the electoral cycle are key to the integrity of the elections.

Integrity of elections anywhere is crucial for factors such as the internal stability of the country, and citizens’ satisfaction with their regimes.

There is electoral integrity in Africa

EIP survey findings

The major findings of the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity survey

The report presents an in-depth analysis of 28 African countries, examining the 30 elections held in these countries from the second half of 2012 to the end of December 2014. South Africa’s May 2014 general election was one of them.

The PEI survey, says the organisation, is a tool that can allow comparison between countries, as well as comparing consecutive elections within countries and ultimately, identifying regional trends. It was conducted with election experts such as political or other social scientists who have demonstrated knowledge of the electoral process in a particular country. About 40 experts were consulted for each election.

Only one country was found to have very high electoral integrity – this was Tunisia with a PEI score of 74. There were 10 countries with high, eight with moderate, seven with low and two with very low electoral integrity. South Africa is one of the 10 with a PEI score of 71 and was the fourth-best country on the index, bested only by Rwanda and Mauritius, with Tunisia. The country scored higher than the African average on all indicators and above the global average on all but the campaign finance indicator – here the scores were the same. However, it did not manage the top score in any of the 11 categories (named below).

Analysing all aspects of an election

The index was divided into 11 categories, which correspond to the steps of a typical election cycle. These categories were laws, procedures, boundaries, voter registration, party registration, media, finance, voting, the count, results, and electoral authorities. An analysis of the results shows that the elements of counting, results and procedures were the strongest, while campaign finance, voter registration, and campaign media coverage were the most problematic stages of the electoral cycle in Africa. The EIP noticed the same trend in the global context.

Electoral laws in Africa were generally on par with the global average. This PEI sub-dimension assessed whether the legal framework of elections benefits the incumbent or larger parties, or whether citizens’ rights are restricted. Ghana was the best performer, with a score of 84 – far above both the African (59) and global (64) averages. In fact, Ghana’s electoral laws ranked ninth in the world. The region’s worst performer was Equatorial Guinea (31).

The electoral procedures category evaluated whether elections were well managed and conducted in accordance with the law. A country could score favourably in this category even if the electoral laws were noticeably tilted towards a particular candidate or party. In addition, this category addressed the fairness of election officials and the levels of voter information and education. Mauritius performed exceptionally well in this category with a score of 92, 12th best in the world. By contrast, Djibouti had the worst electoral procedures (both in Africa and globally) with a score of only 32.

Voting district boundaries are a crucial component of electoral integrity. In Africa, South Africa fared best in this category with a score of 79, while Burkina Faso had the worst problems in this regard with a score of 36. To give context, the US was found to be the third worst country in this category in a global comparison.

Manipulation, as well as simple lack of capacities and funds, can impede electoral integrity at the stage of the voter registration process. This PEI category assessed to what extent citizens were missing from the voters roll, whether ineligible voters were on the roll, and how accurate the voter register was overall. Rwanda led this category with a score of 84. At the other end of the spectrum, the PEI experts noted severe problems with voter registration in Equatorial Guinea, which was again at the bottom of the African (and global) table with a score of only 24. South Africa, whose electoral commission found itself in hot water recently over an incomplete voters’ roll for the upcoming local elections, scored 64.

Party and candidate registration encompassed inter-party as well as intra-party competition. Items in this category included: to what extent opposition candidates were prevented from running or holding campaign rallies, how party candidates were selected, and whether women or ethnic minorities had equal opportunities to stand for office. In many newer democracies only recently emerging from one-party rule, this dimension still scored low. Ghana led the African comparison with a score of 80, while Djibouti sat at the bottom of the regional and global list with a score of 31. South Africa scored 70.

Media coverage was particularly problematic for electoral integrity in Africa, although this was problematic globally too. The regional average (55) was only slightly lower than the global (57) one. Items in this category assessed how balanced and fair election reporting was in print and broadcast media, and whether political parties had equitable access to airtime. It also assessed the extent to which citizens used social media and the internet to scrutinise the electoral process. Burkina Faso (80) scored highest in this category, and Equatorial Guinea, with problems such as unfair or biased reporting and unequal access to the media, scored 27. South Africa scored 61, although the country is grappling with a public broadcaster that now selects which items it will show. This practice, which is akin to censorship, say journalists and editors, has been widely criticised, as has a decreasing atmosphere of media freedom at the corporation.

The PEI category of campaign finance was by far the worst in African elections, but the regional average of 40 was not too far below the global average of 48. The effect of money in politics was a common concern in many developing countries like Burkina Faso and the Republic of Congo, but also in many affluent societies like the US, Spain, and Italy. The regulation of money in politics deserves greater attention by domestic actors and the international community when seeking to reduce corruption, the abuse of state resources, and vote-buying, and to strengthen public confidence in elections, and ensure a level playing field for all parties and candidates. Rwanda (64) scored highest in this dimension regionally, while Congo (Brazzaville) scored lowest at 27. South Africa scored 47.

The regional voting process average (56) was lower than the global average (62). This dimension was the most varied and comprehensive since it included the consideration of first order conditions such as whether voters were threatened with violence at the polls, political manipulation (whether some fraudulent votes were cast), and logistical elements such as whether postal ballots or some form of internet voting was available. In this dimension, the best performer was Botswana (72), while Equatorial Guinea came last with 30. South Africa scored 67.

As with the rest of the world, the vote count process was the most highly regarded category in the whole electoral process in Africa. That the vote count was, overall, in good shape is worth emphasising because significant media and electoral observation mission attention is invested in examining this process. Some of the indicators included whether the results were announced without undue delay and whether international and domestic election monitors were restricted. The top scoring country in this regard was Mauritius (89), and the lowest was Djibouti (34) followed by Equatorial Guinea (37). South Africa scored 80.

Once the tabulation is done, the results are announced. This can lead to challenges or even violence. Overall, this category performed above the rest. The top scoring country was Botswana (83) while Djibouti (46) scored lowest. South Africa scored 78.

The electoral cycle also includes the performance of the election management body. In South Africa’s case this is the Independent Electoral Commission. The evaluation of African bodies was slightly above the global average. Mauritius (87) scored the highest while the lowest, again, was Equatorial Guinea (30). South Africa scored 75.

South Africa – a case study

South Africa was rated by the PEI experts as one of the best in Africa. With an overall score of 71 the country ranked 4th in Africa and 40th globally.

The May 2014 national election was noteworthy, not only for being the first since the death in 2013 of Nelson Mandela, the first in which the “born frees” (those born after 1994) were able to vote, and the first in which South Africans living abroad were allowed to vote. It was the first election for parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (who won 25 seats), the National Freedom Party (six seats), and Agang (two seats). Not much changed in terms of results.

Observers from the AU were generally pleased with the quality of the election. The only low point in PEI terms was campaign finance, where South Africa scored 47, just below the global average of 48 but above the African average of 40. The ongoing misuse of state resources and corruption of elected officials were also important considerations in the campaign.

Despite new voters and new parties, South Africa’s election was a good example of one with high integrity across most dimensions of the electoral cycle. The lesson to be learned, said EIP, was that overall electoral integrity is not so much dependent on achieving superlative performance in any single area, but rather on improving the multitude of aspects of elections along the whole electoral cycle.