The Portfolio Committee on Justice, Legal, Constitutional and Parliamentary Affairs will conduct public hearings on the Electoral Amendment Bill when Parliament reconvenes for the fourth Session of the seventh Parliament on September 6 2011.
This is the same committee whose public hearings on the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Bill were disrupted last month by a group of hooligans who are yet to be arrested for contempt of Parliament.
It is pleasing to note that the committee had not been deterred by the disruptions and resolved unanimously to exercise Parliament’s constitutional mandate.
Abandoning public hearings because of the behaviour of some unruly elements in our society would have been a major setback to the advancement of parliamentary reforms which aim to create a strong, independent and democratic Parliament that opens up its business to public participation.
It is the duty of the police to ensure that adequate security is provided for the forthcoming hearings on this very important piece of legislation governing the electoral process.
The committee will conduct hearings in the following areas beginning September 12: Juliasdale, Mutasa, Mutare, Nyika in Bikita, Masvingo, Lupane, Bulawayo, Plumtree, Gokwe, Headlands, Marondera and Harare.
While the choice of some rural venues is welcome as it takes Parliament to marginalised communities, public hearings can only become meaningful if Parliament and civil society organisations make serious efforts to distribute copies of the Electoral Amendment Bill to the public well in advance of the hearings.
Translation of the main provisions of the Bill into local languages would assist immensely. Members of the public can only make well-thought-out submissions if they are familiar with the provisions of the proposed law.
Let me now focus on my own views on the content of the Electoral Amendment Bill. Internationally, it is agreed that elections must be conducted in a manner that is consistent with the principle that the authority to govern derives from the will of the people demonstrated through elections that are efficiently, freely, fairly, transparently and properly conducted on the basis of universal and equal suffrage exercised through a secret ballot.
So this should be the spirit guiding crafting of any electoral law.
The Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections should also be the guiding document when formulating the law. The Sadc Principles require member states to do the following:
• Take measures to ensure the scrupulous implementation of democratic election principles;
• Establish impartial, all-inclusive, competent and accountable national electoral bodies staffed by qualified personnel;
• Safeguard human and civil liberties of all citizens, including the freedom of movement, assembly, association, expression, campaigning and access to the media by all stakeholders during electoral processes;
• Provide adequate resources for carrying out democratic elections; and
• Ensure that adequate security is provided to all parties participating in elections.
The provisions of the Bill that are progressive include announcement of presidential results within five days; adequate time for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to conduct a proper delimitation of constituencies; extension of period between nomination day and polling day from between 28 and 50 days to between 42 and 63 days; reasonable time frame (between 28 and 42 days) by which a presidential run-off should take place; giving ZEC overall responsibility to accredit local and foreign observers; strengthening code of conduct for political parties especially in relation to politically-motivated violence and intimidation; appointment of special liaison officers in each province for the expeditious investigation of cases of politically motivated violence; to assist the special liaison officer will be special investigation committees in each province chaired by a representative of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission; and strengthening the Electoral Court to ensure quick and fair settlement of election related disputes.
However, there are provisions in the proposed law that are problematic.
They include question marks on the independence of ZEC from the Justice minister, restrictions on funding for voter education by civic groups, executive dominance in the Observer Accreditation Committee, failure to give ZEC sole and exclusive responsibility for the registration of voters and the maintenance of the voters roll, absence of provisions to ensure the courts expedite dispute resolution, lack of specific punitive sanctions against media firms that do not provide fair media coverage to all political parties and barring of Diaspora voting.
While generally some of the amendments to the Electoral Act are progressive, it must be borne in mind that good electoral laws will not in themselves produce a free, fair and credible election outcome.
The laws must be properly implemented and enforced. For there to be a free and fair electoral environment, political parties should be free to campaign and have fair access to the mass media to put across their political messages while voters must be free to support and vote for parties of their own choice.
Parliament must at the same time deal with other relevant pieces of legislation that have a bearing on the success of the electoral process such as those regulating access to information and freedom of association and assembly.
In other words, there must be a holistic approach to electoral reform and enforcement of the laws without fear or favour.
•John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust writing in his personal capacity. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org