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Electoral commission under fire

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The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) has come under fire from lawmakers accusing the election management body of partisan interest which they alleged created an environment for rigging the presidential poll expected next year.

MPs representing the portfolio committees of Home Affairs and Defence and Justice, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs met here with Zec top officials and civic groups, to gather thoughts on electoral reforms ahead of the elections.

Entirely bellicose and uncompromising, the lawmakers told the startled Zec officials, in raised voices, that the body had been “militarised” and that its work was veiled in secrecy contrary to its public mandate.

Zec was represented by Deputy Chief Elections Officer for Operations Utloile Silaigwana and Shamiso Chahuruva the Chief Law Officer at the indaba convened by the Parliament of Zimbabwe and the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST).

The lawmakers said Zec was never autonomous and easily malleable by the Executive, raising fears of rigging next year.

“Accept that you (Zec) are partisan and have failed on ethical behaviour and integrity,” Shepherd Mushonga MDC-T MP for Mazowe Central shot at the Zec officials.

“We have an uneven electoral field. There is political interference in Zec and across the whole electoral system. Two ministries, Foreign Affairs and Justice, invite observers from North Korea where there are no elections, from China where there have never been any elections, and this smacks of partisan politics in the electoral system. The registration of voters is in the hands of the Registrar General, who is a political appointee, has made utterances of a political nature and has shown that he is not neutral. As long as we have this status quo we are not going to have a free election,” Mushonga said.

The MP said ZEC was not expected to be impartial, alleging that some of the body’s offices were within the notorious secret state spy service, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and military establishments.

Mushonga said: “Perception is critical in an election. If a Zec office is housed in a CIO office what do you expect other parties to say? Army officers, retired or seconded, are within Zec structures and what perception is Zec building? We need a clean-up at Zec.

We need mostly retired judges to man Zec and once we do that we put in an electoral code so that electoral disputes are dealt with on the spot. And that decision by the judges must be final in an arbitrary manner. That will level the playing field. As long as we don’t repose our confidence in Zec we will always have these problems.”

Before the Zec boss could respond MDC-T MP Pishayi Muchauraya was piling even more criticism on the election management body, which lost all credibility when it failed to announce election results in the June 2008 polls for several weeks after counting had been completed.

“We have to come up with a new establishment which is independent. It doesn’t make any sense to have a squad of soldiers calling themselves Zec that goes for a briefing at State House and agrees on results with Mugabe (President).

Whatever they agree with President Mugabe is announced as election results. The Zec we have is what Mugabe prefers and that’s what he means when he says he is ready for elections. That’s nonsense,” said Pishayi Muchauraya MDC-T MP for Makoni South.

Silaigwanna remained steadfast in the face of embarrassing accusations blaming the assertions by Zec critics on unsubstantiated media reports.

“The proliferation of unsubstantiated information by the media is compromising Zec’s integrity and credibility of the electoral process, making people lose confidence in the commission and the system and risking the lives of electoral officers,” Silaigwanna said.

He added that civic society and political parties misrepresented issues which built negative public perception of Zec.

Silaigwanna said Zec, on its own, faced serious problems away from the public domain, from political parties and civic society that had “hijacked” the mandate of the body, the failure by political parties to adhere to the code of conduct, voter apathy and violence, which he admitted marred polls and made Zec work difficult.

Under the heat of criticism the elections chief sought to draw sympathy from the combative MPs, saying many of Zec’s headaches could be attributed to poor funding than anything else.

Zec is funded by the state.

“We have always submitted our budgets but we get about 4% of our budget for the whole year,” the elections officer said.

“Our funds are disbursed late and are inadequate. The funding authority fails to recognise the electoral cycle and elections are only funded after proclamation which compromises our work. Voter education is not funded yet politicians and the electorate require voter education.

“If the electorate is educated on electoral processes and the people’s rights to vote are communicated adequately, society would have a better understanding of electoral fundamentals and (this would) reduce tension, polarisation and apathy.”

Silaigwanna said logistical and demography issues impacted Zec’s work, saying politicians deliberately refused to appreciate that.

“Zec is the only election management body in the region without its own infrastructure and (it is ill-equipped to deal with) the movement of people due to land distribution, which are serious challenges.”

MPs were concerned that if electoral reforms failed to address the “mess” at Zec, next year’s elections were headed for disaster.

Silaigwana allayed fears amongst the MPs of a repeat of the June 2008 election when results were not announced for several weeks after counting.

“We won’t have problems with that anymore. Legislation is coming stipulating that presidential election results will be announced in five days.”

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