Zimbabwe’s electoral processes have come under scrutiny since the turn of the century, but chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) Justice Rita Makarau thinks Zimbabweans need to look beyond the polling booth for answers to the problems in these processes. NewsDay (ND) senior reporter Richard Chidza interviewed Justice Makarau (RM) about these and other issues.
Below are excerpts of the interview:
ND: Do you think Zimbabwe’s electoral processes are fair?
RM: The procedures and processes are fair and never skewed in favour of any political grouping, but maybe we have to open up a little bit. The polling booth is never empty. We always have someone watching what is happening or monitoring the process.
ND: So your mandate is beyond the polling booth, right?
RM: Yes, it is beyond the polling station and maybe this is what people need to begin to look at. Our people need to stop being myopic and blaming Zec for everything, but to look at what is said and done prior to actual voting.
It should be noted that the election is won or lost outside the polling booth. A lot would have been said and would have happened. You know the media has this effect of educating the public, influencing the public; sometimes it educates, at times it influences.
Sometimes eeh . . . I do not want to use the term misinform, but they give information in such a way that they are not telling the entire truth, they are telling that part of the story they want to sell. That is what they are in business to do. Zec has no mandate to control the media. It is controlled by some other authority.
ND: But there are areas that have remained no-go areas for the opposition?
RM: The media in Zimbabwe is polarised. It is black or white with no shades of grey at all, because of that, we also tend to polarise society into believing what they want to believe, sometimes it is not the entire truth, sometimes it is not entirely correct, but because of where we are coming from, the media sees it fit to be polarised.
Maybe if the media would teach our people to make informed choices and see change in the political playfield ahead of elections.
Then you talk of other areas that you say are no-go areas for other political parties outside the ruling party. That is now part of the greater picture of our society and there are so many other forces at play.
You have the police, traditional leaders and the community structures and these are not the responsibility of Zec, but the responsibility of Zimbabwe as a structured State from the top to the bottom. You cannot blame problems in such areas on Zec for that.
ND: Do you think Zec needs to be reformed?
RM: Zec is reformed; Zec is reforming, even if you look at the membership and their appointment. People are applying to be a commissioner of Zec and this is done in public by Parliament which comprises all political interest groups in the country and you cannot have a fairer system than what we have.
You cannot have a more transparent process than that. The people sitting on the commission now are interviewed by Parliament in public and if this public institution has failed us, then I do not know who can save us.
ND: Do members of the Zec secretariat come from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO)?
RM: I do not know about that, that they come from the CIO, but when I joined the commission, I went through their personal files and they indicate that they are employed by Zec. If their background is security, it is another issue altogether.
Maybe what people need to interrogate is what sort of discretion is reposed in each official of the secretariat, because if they are only required to stamp forms, I do not think it matters whether they come from the national army, the Salvation Army or Dynamos.
We ought to examine who makes decisions at Zec, their background, beliefs and levels of integrity. In this case, most of these decisions are made by the commission that is appointed in public through a transparent system.
ND: Talking of integrity, did you as Justice Makarau join Zec as an ex-Zanu PF MP or as a level-headed Zimbabwean?
RM: My experience is that people who join the commission did so as individuals, but we all know that everyone has their biases. I may be biased towards women or children, while someone else is biased towards a certain religious grouping, nobody is an empty vacuum.
However, we debate issues robustly, we are guided by principle and the law. I have never lost track of the fact that I am a lawyer and a judge. I keep that hat on and always remind myself that I am a lawyer and a judge.
So I should bring that to bear on my work, even if the result of the debate does not favour my particular interest group. If that is what the law seems to be saying, I am not saying we do not make mistakes, we are human beings, but we try and interpret it the best way we understand it.
ND: What is the Registrar-General’s role now?
RM: The Registrar-General (Tobaiwa Mudede) remains just that, the registrar of civil registration from birth, death and any other responsibility relating to registration.
So whether we want it or not, that office cannot be divorced from the electoral process. He determines who has been born, that they are now of voting age or that they are dead and cannot vote anymore.
ND: In terms of electoral processes, is there where his role ends?
RM: His (Mudede’s) role begins and ends with registering citizens and from that, we then extrapolate who is a citizen, who is eligible to vote or not.
ND: Do we still have dead people on the voters’ roll?
RM: Practically, we will always have dead people on the voters’ roll because someone may die on voting day. It is practically impossible to have a 100% clean voters’ roll, but say within a given period, voter registration is closing on a particular date, then we can try and clean it as much as we can to reduce the number of ineligible people on the role.
It is not only about dead people, but also includes people leaving the country permanently and these, according to the law, should be removed.
We will always have that margin of people who should not be on the roll. It is, therefore, the mandate of the Election Management Board (EMB) to subject the roll to periodic checks in liaison with different departments like immigration and the Registrar-General’s Office. You are likely to have a cleaner voters’ roll if you check more regularly than not.
ND: How regularly is Zec doing this?
RM: We have just started the registration exercise and those are some of the issues we are debating. We have come up with a strategy to maintain the best roll ever. So we will have to do that very often.
ND: Can Zimbabweans expect to move towards a biometric voting system soon?
RM: It is an idea we are toying with, looking at the pros and cons and we are seeing more positives in that system. It is expensive and given our current financial situation, we sincerely hope we will be able to fund it. It has quite a number of advantages, but its biggest drawback is the cost.
ND: How much would you need?
RM: I would not be able to give a figure off-hand, but it depends on the type of technology we would decide on, what sort of bio-information we would need from each voter to put on their voting card, the equipment we might require. It is the technology that will record the bio-information and the technology that will detect that information on voting site.
You will need each polling station having this dual technology throughout. If we are to be more voter friendly, we may need to establish more sites and with our power problems, it might be a big problem and that is why I cannot give a definitive figure.
ND: What are you doing to be more voter-friendly?
RM: We try and reduce that (the distances that people walk to polling station) during every election. We are voter-centric.
ND: Accusations of gerrymandering and delimitation of constituencies in favour of Zanu PF?
RM: According to our law, delimitation is done two years after every census and our next census is in 2020, so there are not going to be any changes in 2018 to the current constituencies.
ND: Are you happy with the levels of trust in Zec?
RM: We are fairly happy and any criticism we take it as a challenge and part of confidence building. We are fairly happy with our work, but there is room for improvement and we are very happy with our efforts to improve our systems.
ND: With the boycotts?
RM: That is a political decision and do not think they are boycotting Zec alone, but the whole political process. It is not exclusive to Zec.
We are aware that because of the nature of work that Zec does, we are always being watched and we must do our work meticulously. We need to open up a little more to our stakeholders. We will, therefore, engage stakeholders more. There is a lot more we are doing, positive work that the public must know.
ND: So you treat all parties equally?
RM: We do not pay attention to the membership of political parties; they are all equal to us.