THE Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) recently launched a voter education campaign through a planned five-day national blitz, reaching out to potential eligible voters. Similarly, civic society groups and some political parties invariably embarked on last-minute initiatives to educate sections of the electorate.
BY JACK ZABA
The foregoing efforts were a precursor to the imminent biometric voter registration drive. What is strikingly common amongst the different voter education efforts by stakeholders, is that all campaigns are late, evidently inadequate and less comprehensive in nature.
More than two weeks after the inception of the new voter registration drive, which was launched by President Robert Mugabe on September 14, 2017, the majority of potential registrants remain stuck in a state of bewilderment and awestruck, bereft over how the voter registration exercise shall proceed.
Indeed, this shall leave some voters to be frog-marched to register to vote in a manner tantamount to coercion as they shall be in lack of adequate knowledge, which pits them to make uninformed participation. On the other hand, some of the prospective eligible voters will not muster enough motivation to participate at all, which perpetuates the undesired cancer of voter apathy.
It has become almost a cliché to mention the inadequacy and untimely character of voter education campaigns in Zimbabwe. Voter education has become constantly ineffective, which affects the quality of democracy in a broad way.
While voter education remains inadequate, a constant feature about this process, as it is being administered especially by Zec, is its weakness in addressing contextual aspects which crucially are inalienable to voter behaviour.
Elections in Zimbabwe happen in the realm of a legacy of violence, suspected electoral manipulation and a compromised power transfer mechanism whose effect to the electorate has eventuated into serious voter apathy. There remains also a huge mistrust on Zec amongst the electorate.
Common questions amongst the younger generation of voters, especially those between ages 18-30 relate to; Why waste my time if elections will obviously be rigged? Why vote when I know there won’t be any change, even if my party wins? Why participate anyway, if my life is insecure from merchants of violence?
Any attempt at voter education therefore, which does not address these key fundamental questions from the electorate will in essence be a waste of time and money. Going into a village and preach to the electorate about otherwise important things like when one can register, where they can register and how they will be registered is clearly not adequate enough to entice the majority of prospective voters to go and claim registration, before they subsequently participate in the 2018 polls.
The anticipated voter education exercise by Zec might become less effective due to the fact that the electoral commission will simply share voter information — which is basic information enabling qualified citizens to vote — including the date, time, and place of voting; the type of election; identification necessary to establish eligibility; registration requirements; and mechanisms for voting.
Voter education typically addresses voter motivation and preparedness to participate fully in elections, while civic education usually deals with broader concepts underpinning a democratic society such as the respective roles and responsibilities of citizens, government, political and special interests, the mass media, and the business and non-profit sectors, as well as the significance of periodic and competitive elections.
It emphasizes not only citizen awareness but citizen participation in all aspects of democratic society.(www.aceproject.org )
The expectation will be that Zec will find a delicate balance on voter information, voter education and civic education components which are fundamentally linked aspects of encouraging broader participation of citizens.
In countries where voter education is reportedly effective, it is usually long-term in approach and backed by a robust civic education programme, which is continuous in nature and a specific voter information campaign which gives details about a specific electoral process.
Reality ahead of the 2018 polls is that less than a year before voting, the electorate had not experienced any form of voter education, one which addresses their enduring questions on the conduct of poll, while motivating them to participate in the next set of elections. Equally the country has hugely weak mechanisms for civic education, often expected to be delivered in schools, colleges, churches and other spaces of human concentration not necessarily related to a specific electoral event.
Getting the electorate to an election without proper civic education equates to throwing citizens into an election without the necessary appreciation of the importance of one’s participation in an election and the citizen power underpinning such voter participation.
It remains important for Zec, civic society and political parties to design messages with a potential to unlock the electorate from prevailing disinterest in elections. Without renewed motivation it might be difficult to convince first time eligible voters to register, let alone emboldening those in the pre-existing voters roll to come out again and re-register.
Any form of voter education, must be designed in a manner that leaves targeted individuals with answers to their enduring questions about electoral politics in Zimbabwe which expectedly will re-motivate them to actively participate in elections.