Putting the Diaspora vote in perspective

Section 23B (c) of the current Zimbabwean Constitution ascribes the right to every adult citizen to participate in voting in elections and referendums.

While a process to make a new constitution is underway, it is unlikely that this right would be forfeited.

In effect, therefore, Zimbabweans aged from 18, whether resident in the country or in other countries across the globe, have a constitutional claim to participate in national elections and referendums.

Clearly, no disputation arises around the interpretation of the constitution in respect of the scope of suffrage. Rather, contention has tended to proceed from the Electoral Act (No 25/2005), which limits the right (or is it now privilege?) to participate in national elections to locally resident and registered Zimbabweans and, in the case of those outside the country at the time of an election, to diplomatic staff and public employees, together with their spouses, on duty.

The issue of the expatriate vote is what motivates this article. The Constitution, as the supreme law of the country, should be honoured in spirit and practice, always.

Thus, there is need for Zimbabwe to seriously engage towards according Zimbabweans living in the Diaspora the right to vote, especially as we prepare for a referendum and the next harmonised elections.

While it is difficult to get reliable statistics, it is generally estimated that around three million Zimbabweans, more than two thirds of whom are of voting age, have trekked into Southern Africa, the rest of the continent, Europe and the United States since 2000, for political and economic reasons.

There have been public hearings over the Electoral Amendment Bill and we were promised, particularly by the MDC-T, that the issue of the Diaspora vote, a “hot potato” in the words of Douglas Mwonzora — would feature prominently. Over the years, debate around the external vote has tended to straddle a polarised political reality.

The MDC, on one hand, unequivocally favours the Diaspora vote, while Zanu PF is against it. The MDC and pro-Diaspora vote lobbyists argue excluding millions of Zimbabweans out there from voting is unconstitutional, undemocratic, against the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Sadc principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, discriminatory and a violation of the right of freedom of expression.

There is a belief the majority of people who have migrated to other countries are against Zanu PF, which, on the other hand, has cited logistical and practical factors to buffer the drive for the external vote. The MDC position is popular and the Zanu PF one clever.

While brickbats have been hurled over whether or not to include the external vote, what has obviously lacked is a comprehensive articulation of the dynamics involved in installing a Diaspora voting system.

It is therefore worthwhile to put discourse around this hot subject in proper perspective because you do not just wake up to a voting Diaspora.

The process from planning for an external vote to ballot casting and counting, involves a lot of steps that we need to take cognisanse of, so that, in the event that principals to the Global Political Agreement concur on the expatriate poll, we would know how to proceed.

The expatriate vote would occur through physical voting at designated polling stations outside Zimbabwe and postal ballot casting. Before that stage, there is need to consider a whole spectrum of issues.

Zimbabweans who left the country during that period of an acute political-economic crisis are flung far and wide across the world.

The first stage would be to map voter density in order to decide how to zone out constituencies and to decide on the feasibility of allowing pockets of voters to participate in elections.

In Southern Africa, Zimbabwean migrants are concentrated mostly in South Africa, where they are estimated to number around 1,5 million, and Botswana, which has around 400 000 of our citizens residing in that country on a more-or-less permanent basis.

There are significant populations in Zambia, Malawi and Lesotho, while the UK stands out in Europe as a top destination, with the US, Canada and Australia also being favourite places of economic and political refuge.

The zoning and constituency delimitation processes require skilled and semi-skilled manpower and this is naturally the baby of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec).

Diasporan electors, like local voters, should be registered and this is a process that requires human, financial and material resources of significant measure and it is thus vital to seriously consider the logistics of registering external voters.

How will the external voters’ roll be incorporated into the national one?

What is the likelihood of ghosting and other forms of electoral fraud?

How are the potential voters going to respond to the call to participate in the elections?

The South African moratorium on undocumented Zimbabweans extends a source of wisdom. Out of the estimated 1,5 million migrants, less than
300 000 chose to seek the permits under the Home Affairs special arrangement.

There was immediate personal gain to be obtained from applying for the permits, so the apathy is confusing.

Are we then guaranteed of attracting enough interest from the Diasporan voters, most of whom do more than 18 hours a day working and job-switching?

And then there is the issue of whether or not running candidates would be allowed to go and campaign outside Zimbabwe, for the sake of freeness and fairness and whether the government would subsidise their sojourns from the political parties fund.

The issue of campaigning in the Diaspora, naturally, has an international relations implication. For instance, would President Robert Mugabe, who is on the EU sanctions list, be granted a visa to go and campaign in the UK?

Or would there be a separate process to declare a temporary moratorium on sanctions?

We have been told that the next national elections require $2 million. I am not sure about the benchmarks considered in fixing this amount, but am firmly persuaded the external vote would require more than that figure.

There is need for extensive voter education to be co-ordinated by ZEC, setting up of infrastructure in host polling zones, piles of supplies to enable registration, voting and counting of ballots, as well as salaries and allowances for a huge base of personnel.

It is necessary to have a separate and elaborate budget for the expatriate vote and this is the time to deploy our minds towards how to mobilise the required funds.

Excluding the Diaspora vote, no doubt, is an act of disenfranchisement. There is need to amend the Electoral Act to cater for external electors of Zimbabwean citizenship.

What is worrying, however, is the seemingly naïve approach those that are advocating for the external vote have assumed.

They have tended to simplistically dwell on the mere need to have the external vote without telling us how that should happen and this is perhaps the time for that kind of discourse to begin.

Tawanda Majoni is the monitoring and evaluation officer at the Centre for Elections and Democracy in Southern Africa

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