A meeting of the three principals to the inclusive government last week agreed that the Electoral Amendment Bill should be amended to do away with the contentious provision of a polling station-based voters’ roll.
In other words, they agreed to continue with the current ward-based voting system whereby voters are registered in their wards and may vote at any polling station within their wards.
The proposed amendment provided for the establishment of permanent polling stations and for the preparation of voters rolls based on polling stations rather than constituencies or wards. Each voter would then be registered at a specific polling station and vote at that station.
The issue that arose from this provision was whether the existing roll would be used as the basis for allocating voters to particular polling stations or whether this new system would require the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) through the Registrar-General to undertake a fresh voter registration process.
If the existing roll was to be used to assign registered voters to polling stations based upon the addresses given when they were registered, this could lead to inaccuracies because in a particular area people may have moved from their original addresses and some voters in the area may have died.
One complication was how ZEC would be able to establish and locate voter specific polling stations until it knew the voter population density in the different areas throughout the country.
While the advantage of polling station specific voter system was that it allowed for easier administration of elections, on the other hand it was argued that those intent upon using violence and intimidation to influence the vote would find it far easier to pressurise a relatively small voter population who live in the vicinity of the voting station at which they are registered and at which they have to vote.
It is against this background that the scrapping of this proposed amendment is a significant development which must be applauded.
But while we celebrate, let us not forget this one provision alone will not go far enough to fully realise the electoral reform process that we are yearning for.
More still needs to be done.
It is generally agreed the majority of the provisions of the Electoral Amendment Bill are quite progressive.
They include announcement of presidential results within five days; adequate time for the 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, areas of concern that still remains in the bill 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.
Internationally, it is agreed 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 the crafting of the Electoral Act.
The Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections should be the guiding document when formulating the policy and legal framework for elections. 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
• Ensure that adequate security is provided to all parties participating in elections
• Ensure the transparency and integrity of the entire electoral process by facilitating the deployment of representatives of political parties and individual candidates at polling and counting stations and by accrediting national and other observers/monitors.
In conclusion, while the action by principals is a positive development, this law is not a guarantee for a free, fair and credible election.
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.
It is my hope that when Parliament reconvenes, it will deliberate on the Electoral Amendment Bill in a non-partisan manner so that in the end we have a good law governing our elections.
The agreement reached by the principals on polling station voting is most welcome, but not sufficient.
John Makamure is executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust writing in his