JOHANNESBURG, Nov 25 (AFP) - High mortality rates from AIDS and the stigma surrounding the disease are threatening to roll back democratic gains in southern Africa, according to a report released Thursday.
The 282-page report by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (IDASA) -- one of the first of its kind looking at the impact of AIDS on politics -- said that southern African countries are incurring high costs and losing precious resources to the disease.
"The results show that the problematic impacts (of HIV/AIDS) threaten to undermine South Africa's democratic project," said the report.
"This is not only the case in South Africa, but also in southern Africa," added Kondwani Chirambo, one of the authors of the document.
Cash-strapped countries in the region are having to organise by-elections at great cost to replace representatives who die, many of them from AIDS, it said.
The first-past-the-post electoral system, on which many southern African countries base elections, meant that "when an elected candidate resigns, gets expelled, or dies, a new by-election has to be held at great cost," said Chirambo.
The report by the Pretoria-based think tank used Zambia as an example where over an 18-year period some 102 by-elections where held -- 59 of those due to death by disease.
The majority of these by-elections, 39, were held between 1992 and February 2003, which "coincidentally are the years in which the HIV/AIDS pandemic peaked in Zambia."
"We find that Zambia has spent at least 200,000 dollars on each by-election, " it added.
In Zimbabwe, 13 by-elections have been held since 2000, eight of which were held because the member of parliament died prematurely of "illness", the report said.
"The sum effect is that the opposition parties have lost the majority of the by-elections, partly perhaps due to their inability to perpetually compete with a well resourced ruling party," the report said.
AIDS also diminished a country's capacity to conduct proper, free and fair elections, the report said.
South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which in April oversaw its third democratic poll since the end of apartheid in 1994, relied on public service workers for support during elections.
"You want to use people who have previous experience with elections, but five years down the line you have 5,000 to 10,000 public service workers who have died from the disease," taking the knowledge with them, Chirambo said.
Political parties are also struggling with losses to AIDS, "creating an increased need to replace cadres who have succumbed to illness," the report said.
The report also said that over a five-year span from 1998, almost 1.5 million voters in South Africa have "been removed from voters' roll due to death," mainly because of AIDS.
People living with AIDS often stay away from polls because of fear of being shunned while they were waiting in queues to cast their ballots, the report said, highlighting the lack of participation in elections by a substantial group of voters.
The report strongly recommended that countries reform their electoral processes to incorporate HIV/AIDS issues and make it part of all voter education campaigns.
Some 40 million people are living with HIV and AIDS worldwide, two-thirds of whom are in Africa, according to UN figures.
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