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The fourth African Union Commission elections are scheduled to be conducted during the July 2016 Summit of African Union Heads of State in Kigali.

Four years ago, the nomination and eventual election of South Africa’s Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was marred by controversy. This was due to a violation by South Africa of the old unwritten rule that the AU chairperson’s post should only be available to candidates from smaller countries.

The manner in which the election campaign was run also did not endear South Africa to other AU member states.Yet, the 2012 race for the position of chairperson drew the most attention and remains the most tightly contested in the history of the AU.

Undisputedly, on the positive side, Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s election as the first chairwomen of the Commission signified substantial progress in the AU.

Another enduring advantage of the 2012 election was that it aroused considerable interest and stimulated debate about the Commission and the AU in general.

It was hoped that the 2012 competition had set a higher standard for future elections at the AU, including in terms of profile, gender, and the number of nominations and candidates. It was also hoped that winning posts at the Commission would increasingly become more competitive and that incumbency would not imply a guarantee for re-election.

However, with the current low number of nominations, these hopes are yet to be realised.

Diminishing competitiveness, fewer nominations

Twelve years ago, in the first elections in 2003, there were 73 candidates for the post of commissioners. In contrast, in 2008 the number of candidates declined by almost half to 45, and in 2012 this number declined even further to twenty-nine.

Now, for the 2016 election, we only have 32 candidates (after three disqualifications and one late withdrawal). Another crucial concern about the current nominations is the sharp decline in the pedigree and profiles of the various candidates, particularly the chairperson.

For example, Professor Alpha Konare, the first chair of the Commission from 2003-2008, was a former head of state of Mali. Since then there have been two former ministers (Dr Jean Ping of Gabon, and Dr Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa) chairing the Commission.

Too few nominations to shortlist

Outwardly, the 2012 election looked very competitive. Strictly speaking, however, the 2012 election was far from competitive because the election for the post of chairperson occurred by default, not by design.

In fact, a closer look at the number and manner of nominations for the position of chairperson and deputy, and the profiles of the various candidates, showed that nominations had deteriorated in terms of numbers and competence.

For example, in 2012, North Africa, which was entitled to two posts on the Commission, nominated only two candidates, thereby rendering the nomination and the election uncompetitive. Similarly, the incumbent deputy chairperson ran alone without a challenger and thereby transformed the election for this high post into a vote of confidence.

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