Two portfolio committees of Parliament, the Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and Defence and Home Affairs, have taken up the issue of electoral reforms as one of the key activities in their work programme for the third session of the 7th Parliament.
The two committees met in Mutare recently for a workshop to review the principles behind the proposed changes to electoral laws with a view to meaningfully engage the relevant minister, the Executive in general and other stakeholders such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) and Registrar-General’s Office.
The relevant minister in this case is the Minister of Justice and Legal Affairs Patrick Chinamasa.
Portfolio committees are allowed by Parliament rules to have joint sittings. Standing Order 161 (1) of the House of Assembly says “where enquiries by different portfolio committees relate to the same subject matter or similar issues, or will involve the same or similar stakeholders, the portfolio committees concerned may agree to hold joint sittings”.
While the Justice Committee is certainly the leading committee on the subject, the Defence and Home Affairs Committee is also an interested party because the Registrar-General’s Office, under which the voters’ roll falls, is a department under the Ministry of Home Affairs.
The committee oversees the operations of this department and the Zimbabwe Republic Police.
It came out clearly during presentations and discussions at the workshop that preparation for an election is not an easy process.
The election process is a whole cycle and not an event. In other words, elections do not only begin with the actual voting and end with counting of ballots and announcement of winners.
The process begins with the pre-voting period whereby issues to do with the whole legal framework governing the electoral process have to be addressed.
Key legal issues still to be addressed include a new Constitution, amendments to the Electoral Act and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act.
Other related pieces of legislation in need of amendment during the pre-voting period include the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act, the Citizenship Act, the Criminal (Codification and Law Reform) Act and the Political Parties (Financing) Act.
The pre-voting period also encompasses aspects such as proper planning for the election in the areas of funding, recruitment, procurement and logistics.
Adequately funded and massive training and civic education is needed prior to the actual voting.
Unfortunately, in Zimbabwe voter education has been poorly funded, thereby contributing to the apathy that has characterised our elections.
While civic society can carry out voter education, the law requires that their training materials have to be approved by Zec and the environment is generally not conducive for these organisations to carry out voter education.
Another component of the pre-election period is voter registration and the accreditation of domestic and foreign observers.
This issue was discussed at length at the Mutare workshop, with the majority view being that Zec, as an election management body, should have total control over voter registration and accreditation of both domestic and foreign observers.
Section 18 (2) of the Electoral Act only says the Registrar General of voters shall be subject to the direction and control of the Commission.
This does not give the Commission full powers over the registration of voters.
While the Act also provides for voter registration to be conducted on a continuous basis, the majority of the people do not have information on when the voters’ roll is open and how they can go about registering as voters.
This is why voter education by Zec and other stakeholders is so essential.
The second part of the electoral cycle is the voting period.
This entails the actual casting of ballots, counting of ballots cast, tabulation of results, announcement of official results and the whole mechanism to address complaints and appeals, the dispute resolution mechanism.
The issue of time taken to announce results was again discussed at length, with the general view being that the public loses confidence in the electoral process if the announcement of results is unreasonably delayed.
I hear that the proposed amendments to the Electoral Act will require that results be announced within five days.
This will certainly go a long way in addressing the problem experienced in the 2008 elections when the presidential election results took a month to be announced.
The last part of the electoral cycle is the post-voting period.
This is where an evaluation of the whole election process is carried out and gaps identified with a view to fix them.
If recommendations are made to strengthen the election management body and other institutions involved in the election process, these must be implemented at this stage.
In most cases, gaps in statutes governing elections will be identified at this stage.
The statutes should therefore be amended immediately and not wait for the next election to start working on the electoral laws.
Any public debate on elections should therefore take into that the electoral cycle consists of three major phases that should be adequately funded.
The practice however has been that elections are funded after proclamation, which in this case is the election phase.
This has to change if the election process is to pass the credibility and legitimacy test.
The other issue of concern is the whole procedure of conflict management during an election.
Section 160 B of the Electoral Act provides for the establishment of multi-party liaison committees while Section 160 C provides for the functions of these committees which are as follows:
Resolve disputes, concerns, matters or grievances relating to the electoral process; refer to the Commission disputes relating to the electoral process; present to the Commission any reports, assessments, records or recommendations; and assist in implementing the electoral code for political parties.
A national multi-party liaison committee is chaired by a commissioner from Zec and consists of two representativeS of each political party contesting the election.
An independent candidate is also entitled to select two representatives.
Decisions of these committees are reached by consensus.
This is exactly where the problem is as consensus is never easy to be reached in this country’s politics.
John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust.