African observers to pounce on UK election

If I were a Nigerian electoral official engaged to observe the UK general election on May 6th, what might attract my scrutiny?

This is not such a hypothetical question. The UK Electoral Commission register of accredited observer organisations includes the Peoples Democratic Institute of Nigeria, a body which delivers “education and training on democratic ideals.”

The temptation for a little score-settling might be forgivable. After all, the EU observer mission on the 2007 Nigerian presidential election declared that “the process cannot be considered to have been credible.”

By all accounts, that verdict was entirely deserved. But now is the moment of truth for our own reputation for letting the people decide. Is our general election squeaky clean?

There’s no doubt that banana skins lie in wait for the mature democracy that strives to keep pace with changing times and technologies. I see no reason for our Nigerian friends to be underemployed in their work.

The pursuit of electoral modernisation in the UK has included the expansion of postal and proxy voting, once the preserve of our expatriate community. Nowadays the Electoral Commission advises that “you do not have to give any reason for asking for a postal vote.”

Relieved from the rigours of a short journey to the polling station within the 15 hours allowed for the purpose, we have become a nation of sofa-voters. The Telegraph estimates that 20% of all votes cast in the 2010 election will be by post.

Amongst the many legitimate calls on the postal facility lurks a minefield of potential abuse. Over the past decade there have been substantiated reports of households full of fictitious registered occupants, intimidation by party activists and interference with completed forms. Recommendations by the Metropolitan police to reframe the system have not been pursued.

The big innovation for 2010 has been the introduction of three televised prime ministerial debates. The Liberal Democrat Party, despite holding less than 10% of seats in the House of Commons, was granted equal billing with the two main parties.

Thanks to the winsome gesticulations of their leader, the Liberal Democrats are now a force in the land. The tele-phobic prime minister, much respected on the international circuit, has been trounced in the viewer voting.

International observers will surely question whether such influential television electioneering has been fairly integrated with the nooks and crannies of the electoral system. They might start by looking at the grievances of minority parties excluded from the debates. The Green Party in particular has legitimate credentials of sustainability and penetration in local politics.

The timing of the TV debates might also be more significant than appreciated. The first debate, acknowledged as the most decisive by a distance, took place on April 15th. Yet the closing date for voter registration for the election was not until April 20th.

The head of the Electoral Commission has conceded that, amongst other potential reasons for a surge in registrations over those five days, “the debate did have an impact.” Voter registration is of course a legitimate goal of the Commission, but perhaps not in response to set pieces of the campaign trail.

The central criticism of the debates has focused on whether they showcase true prime ministerial calibre as opposed to lesser media talents. Curiously enough, the cult of personality at the expense of competence is a common grouse about elections in Africa.

We may soon know just how much this matters. When the financial markets have imposed IMF discipline on Greece, Portugal and Spain, they will turn their attention to the next weakest economy. The new UK prime minister will need more than a TV studio manicure to fend off the vampire speculators.

This scenario may be a couple of years away by which time the managing director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is expected to have resigned in order to contest the French presidency.

It’s not inconceivable that his successor, busily bailing out the UK economy, will be a certain Gordon Brown.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK