Democracy: the next AIDS victim

GEORGES GOBET/AFP Democracy has proven tough enough for many African nations—poor, riddled with corruption, and bereft of functioning institutions as they are—to achieve. Now we can add one more inhibiting factor to the list: HIV/AIDS. Not only does AIDS leave voter rolls bloated with the names of people who have died, a recent study of ...

601414_070606_africa_05.jpg
601414_070606_africa_05.jpg

GEORGES GOBET/AFP

Democracy has proven tough enough for many African nations—poor, riddled with corruption, and bereft of functioning institutions as they are—to achieve. Now we can add one more inhibiting factor to the list: HIV/AIDS. Not only does AIDS leave voter rolls bloated with the names of people who have died, a recent study of six southern African countries found, but the disease robs political parties of their most able campaigners and deprives constituencies of their MPs. A BBC article summarizing the study reports:

In Zambia for example, in the first 20 years from 1964 to 1984 only 6% of by-elections were held as a result of death. But in the next 10 years, 60% of by-elections were because MPs had died. In Malawi, the speaker admitted that 28 deaths of MPs were Aids related.

GEORGES GOBET/AFP

Democracy has proven tough enough for many African nations—poor, riddled with corruption, and bereft of functioning institutions as they are—to achieve. Now we can add one more inhibiting factor to the list: HIV/AIDS. Not only does AIDS leave voter rolls bloated with the names of people who have died, a recent study of six southern African countries found, but the disease robs political parties of their most able campaigners and deprives constituencies of their MPs. A BBC article summarizing the study reports:

In Zambia for example, in the first 20 years from 1964 to 1984 only 6% of by-elections were held as a result of death. But in the next 10 years, 60% of by-elections were because MPs had died. In Malawi, the speaker admitted that 28 deaths of MPs were Aids related.

The study, which was conducted by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, points out that these vacancies sometimes stay open for a year, leaving parts of the population without a voice in government. And the unanticipated economic burden of special by-elections can be just as damaging—one by-election costs Zambia more than US$200,000—since the resources need to be reallocated from other parts of the national budget. Moreover, it’s hard to mobilize apathetic voters during by-elections, so smaller parties with fewer resources end up losing out to the ruling party.

Most disturbingly, though, the study finds that the stigma attached to AIDS makes it extraordinarily difficult to get good data from political elites. How can you fix a problem if you can’t measure it? Reporting these figures and calculating these costs is a vital first step towards greater openness and public disclosure about the disease. If African democracy is to avoid becoming the next victim of the AIDS pandemic, the conspiracy of silence among the continent’s leaders will have to end.

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