May 17, 1997 Legislative Elections in Cameroon: The Report of the IFES International Observer Mission
The International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES) undertook an observation mission to the May 17, 1997 legislative elections in Cameroon. On May I, a two-person IFES monitoring team arrived in Cameroon to observe electoral preparations and the campaign period. IFES sponsored a seven-member election-week international observer delegation which was in Cameroon from May 13-21 and joined the monitors in assessing the end of the campaign period, voting and counting operations, and the general conduct of the elections. From May 21 to June 9, the IFES monitoring mission observed the tabulation and review process at the national level, the Supreme Court's decision on appeals, the official announcement of results and the political atmosphere in the aftermath of the elections.
The objectives of the IFES mission were to demonstrate the interest and support of the international community in the democratic process in Cameroon and gather information for this election assessment report which is addressed to the government and people of Cameroon as well as to the international community.
Given the small size of its international observer mission, which prevented IFES from observing the voting and counting operations at a statistically-representative number of polling stations throughout the country, and the short amount of time that the mission was in Cameroon, thereby limiting its first-hand knowledge of the electoral process to events from late April onward, IFES is unable to comment on whether the outcome of these elections truly reflected the will of the Cameroonian people. That determination is for the people of Cameroon to make. IFES does, however, have major concerns about the credibility of the electoral process.
Most important, the Cameroonian people themselves are deeply concerned about the conduct of the May 17 elections. Twenty-one political parties submitted ISO appeals to the Supreme Court: four parties called for the annulment of the elections and 19 parties, including the ruling party, called for the elections to be annulled in a total of 65 of 74 constituencies. Many domestic observers, of which approximately 600 received accreditation, also reported irregularities in the electoral process, specifically concerning the disenfranchisement of a significant number of the electorate.
IFES notes that the electoral code, although recently reviewed and modified, fails to fully ensure that the election is conducted with adequate transparency and that all citizens are guaranteed the right to vote. The appointment of the chairs of the joint commissions by the administrative authorities does not promote the independence of these important electoral bodies and the lack of investigatory responsibilities on the part of the divisional supervisory commissions and the National Commission for the Final Counting of Votes affords no occasion for the consensual resolution of election disputes. Further, the fact that the Supreme Court is the first and only venue for the challenge of the final results allows complainants no recourse to pursue an appeal. Although the lack of provisions mandating the distribution of the reports of counting operations to political parties represented on the local polling commissions has been addressed by guidelines issued by the Ministry of Territorial Administration, it is critical that this instruction is included in the code. The public release of polling station results by election authorities at the national or divisional level would allow parties to check their polling station reports against these results and would greatly contribute to the transparency of the vote counting and tabulation process.
IFES was particularly concerned about inconsistencies in the implementation of the electoral code. Although IFES was not present during the voter registration period, the mission received numerous reports of discriminatory practices, particularly against those perceived to be supportive of the opposition parties. That the number of people registered in 1997 is lower than in the 1992 and 1996 elections points as well to the disenfranchisement of eligible voters and, perhaps, to voter apathy and disillusionment with the electoral process.
Divisional supervisory commissions were often not established in time to supervise the checking and distribution of registration cards as called for in the law and IFES received credible reports of cards being distributed by persons not legally mandated to do so." On voting day, many people were denied the right to vote, even though they were on the registration list, because they had not received their voter's cards.
Given the many challenges in any electoral process, including the conduct of voter registration year-round, there is a need for the formation of a permanent and autonomous electoral administrative body to work in concert with the local electoral bodies already established. To be effective, this election authority should be accorded legal standing and fiscal autonomy.
Democracies are built and sustained through the holding of credible elections. The 1997 electoral process exhibited many of the same irregularities of the 1992 and 1996 multi-party elections. Cameroonians have the opportunity to address these irregularities now, before the presidential vote later this year. With the seating of the winning parties in the National Assembly, a venue exists for a review of the electoral code and of the structural framework of the election administration. The nation and the people of Cameroon have made an important commitment to a democratic system. Without addressing and correcting some fundamental problems with the election system, that democracy will be jeopardized.
The incidences of violence and arrests prior to and now, after the elections, are of great concern to all friends of Cameroon. It is hoped that all parties can resolve their differences within the established political framework and in a way that will demonstrate the continued commitment of all Cameroonians to building a sustainable democratic nation.