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AIDS leaves its mark at the ballot box

[Malawi] Elections (Ballot box).
With voter apathy on the rise, ballot boxes might stay empty come 2008 elections (IRIN)

Every year for the last 10 years, the Zambian government's reports to the World Bank have shrunk in both length and quality. From 100 pages they are down to 25 and vital statistics are missing. Why?

Some experts suggest the reason is the untimely loss of experienced civil servants as a result of AIDS. "These reports are one of the few government outputs we can monitor and compare over a long period of time," said Nana Poku, professor of African studies at the University of Bradford, in the United Kingdom, and former director of the United Nations Commission on AIDS and Governance in Africa.

Poku was addressing a conference in Cape Town this week, organised by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA), to discuss the impact of AIDS on elections, governments and voters in southern Africa, the epicentre of the epidemic.

In the new and mostly conjectural field of AIDS and governance, the evidence is scattered and hard data is hard to come by. But from the research conducted by IDASA in Namibia, Malawi, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia, some worrying patterns have emerged.

Untimely deaths

In Malawi, between 1994 and 1999, at the epidemic's peak, 42 Members of Parliament (MPs) died. Although the death certificates did not mention AIDS, in 2000, the speaker of the National Assembly said that 28 MPs had died of AIDS-related illnesses in the 1996-2000 legislature. Malawi's HIV rate is 14 percent.

The good news is that between 2000 and 2004, only 12 MPs died, and only five between 2005 and 2006. The drop after 2000 coincides with life prolonging antiretroviral (ARV) treatment becoming cheaper and widely available.

Most of the dead MPs were aged between 40 and 60, a sexually active and affluent group with a good many reasons to contract HIV.

"MPs have money, they are popular, and they engage in risky behaviour," said Dr Flora Kessy, a social scientist at the Ifakara Health Research and Development Centre in Tanzania.

But if MPs are taking ARVs, they are not talking about it. Not one MP in southern Africa is on record as being HIV-positive, yet their death patterns mirror those of their voters: unusually high mortality among the relatively young.

"It is unrealistic that no MP would be HIV-positive," said Kondwani Chirombo, manager of IDASA's Governance and AIDS programme.

Fear is the reason for their silence. "It is political suicide to disclose one is HIV-positive," said researcher Elijah Rubvuta, of the Foundation for Democratic Process in Zambia.

His research found that few Zambian voters want an HIV-positive candidate to stand for office, and AIDS has become "political ammunition". Candidates who start losing weight or looking sick are quickly discredited.

Last year, top officials of all political parties told the researchers that candidates perceived as HIV-positive were political liabilities.

Costly deaths

In Zambia, the number of by-elections due to the death of MPs rose sharply in the 1990s, mirroring the rise of seroprevalence, now at 17 percent among adults.

Of the 46 by-elections held between 1964 and 1984, less than seven percent were due to death by disease or old age. Between 1985 and 2003, as HIV spread, 102 by-elections were held, and 60 percent were due to the death of incumbent MP from disease.

The immediate political cost of by-elections is the constituency's loss of representation and voice as electoral commissions struggle to find the money to hold fresh polls.


Photo: Governance and AIDS Programme
Number of MPs deceased in Malawi, 1994-2006

In Malawi, it took more than a year to conduct by-elections in six constituencies that fell vacant after the 2004 elections. The price tag? Nearly half a million US dollars for the six ballots, and unquantifiable frustration for the voters.

In Zambia, a by-election in a large constituency will cost up to US$200,000, and up to US$500,000 in Tanzania.

Tiny and impoverished Lesotho forked out US$130,000 for each by-election since 2002. Three of these were due to the death of the MPs.

Another political cost is that small opposition parties are disadvantaged by election re-runs, compared to the better-organised and better-resourced ruling parties.

IDASA is now calling on countries that use the first-past-the–post electoral system, which requires by-elections, to switch to proportional representation and party lists, where MPs are assigned seats by their parties.

Voters stay at home

AIDS affects both politicians and voters alike. Between 1999 and 2003, South Africa recorded a sharp increase in mortality, up to 200 percent, among registered voters in the 20-49 age group, particularly among women aged 30-39. Again, this follows AIDS-related death patterns.

South Africa can afford to maintain its voters roll efficiently and trim dead voters: poorer countries like Malawi cannot. This may fuel accusations of ghost voting, in addition to struggling with bloated, inaccurate voters rolls.

In South Africa's eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, the region hardest hit by AIDS, HIV-positive people in focus groups said they feared discrimination at poll queues, IDASA noted. They said their neighbours would not stand in the same queue with someone who showed signs of the disease, such as sores or rash.

AIDS-related illness can also mean disenfranchising those in households who on election day have to care for the sick, and orphans.

ms/oa


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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