Page last updated at 19:49 GMT, Friday, 7 May 2010 20:49 UK

African observers assess UK election

By Ross Velton
BBC News

Counting ballot papers in UK general election
The UK election impressed African observers

With Westerners so used to criticising the often flawed elections in African states, 11 parliamentarians from Commonwealth countries in Africa and Asia were brought over to watch how an election is run in the UK.

It was not always a pretty sight.

People being turned away from polling stations, ballot papers running out and sit-in protests by disgruntled voters were perhaps not what the Commonwealth observers were expecting to see in one of the world's oldest democracies.

The UK Electoral Commission has even announced an official investigation after queueing voters were unable to cast their ballots in a few polling stations that closed promptly at 2200.

"This would never have happened in my country," says Wilson Masilingi, an MP from Tanzania and one of the several Africans in the observer team.

"If a prospective voter arrives on time, he can vote up to three hours or more after the polling station closes."

However Mr Masilingi was generally impressed by what he had seen.

The observers have been encouraged to give advice on how to improve the UK system and the Tanzanian MP has an idea to avoid a repeat of Thursday's polling problems.

Fifty per cent of politicians who lose in Tanzania would go to court
Wilson Masilingi, election observer

"Give powers to the Electoral Commission to tell the presiding officer to keep the polling station open for longer," he suggests.

"Voters could call the Electoral Commission if they can't vote in time. But the candidates could not call - that would be too awkward."

Mr Masilingi was observing in the southern city of Brighton.

"Here [the UK] the system is based on mutual trust," he says.

He was impressed by how the polling station had been been opened promptly by the presiding officer.

"In my country this would not be possible. There would have to be many people present to make sure the station opened at the right time."

Cosy coalitions

Political trust will be important if, as some observers speculate, the UK ends up with a coalition government.

Several African countries currently have power-sharing governments. Can the continent also teach the UK a thing or two in this area?

Sheffield polling station queue
Problems at some polling stations prompted an inquiry

Paramagamba Kabudi, a law professor at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, sees a big difference between the coalitions in Africa and the type of political partnership which might govern the UK.

"Coalitions in Africa are not often the result of a democratic process," explains Mr Kabudi.

They are either formed to avert crisis - as in Kenya - or for national rebuilding - as in South Africa and Rwanda, he says.

Those against the idea of coalitions sometimes argue that they never get things done.

And Mr Kabudi sees little in the African experience to contradict this view.

"People are suspicious of each other and postpone doing things until the next election so they can say the other side did not do this or that," he says.

But the good manners between politicians in the UK impressed Mr Masilingi.

For example, he was pleasantly surprised when they took defeat - or the suggestion of defeat - so well.

"Fifty per cent of politicians who lose in Tanzania would go to court," he says. "And if filing court petitions was free, everybody would go to court."

But even if British politicians are extremely nice to one another within a coalition government, Mr Kabudi thinks it would be a "daunting" experience for the UK.

Coalitions, he said, "are not part of the culture".

But then again, neither are investigations by the Electoral Commission.

Print Sponsor

Inquiry after voters turned away
07 May 10 |  UK election
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