THE campaign season is already in full-swing and judging from what is happening from the terraces it seems the electoral playingfield has shifted from being “very” uneven to being relatively “even”, although there are still concerns around the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), the integrity of the biometric voter registration (BVR) process, the auditing of the voters’ roll, the overbearing influence of the security sector, the politicisation of traditional leaders, repealing of repressive laws and the unequal access to the public media, which continues to hog the limelight.
By Admire Mare
One thing about the “new” dispensation is that opposition political parties and candidates have seized the opportunities afforded to them by offline and digital affordances to campaign and mobilise beyond the narrow confines of the urban spaces.
In the “old” dispensation, it was very difficult for opposition parties and candidates to reach out to those in the rural areas. Cases of intimidation, harassment and brutal killings by the youth militia and other operatives were a common feature of national elections.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa has on countless occasions promised the local and international community that his government will deliver on a free, fair and credible election.
In line with his promise, the country has witnessed some commendable shifts, especially, around the amendment of the Electoral Act in Parliament and also the High Court judgment that banned and prohibited traditional leaders from making political statements on their involvement or allegiance to Zanu PF on any public platform.
Considering the necessity and importance of levelling the electoral playing field in modern day politics, these recent changes are important and the government of the day together with other relevant stakeholders must continue to find each other in order to build strong institutions that outlive mortal human actors.
So what is an even electoral playing field?
There are many definitions in political science and international relations, but there is consensus that the term has its roots in the idea of distributive justice.
Here, it is concerned with the important principle of equality of opportunity.
Equality of opportunity relates to the chance of individuals to make informed choices through eliminating initial inequalities not chosen by the individual, and providing fair conditions for interaction and participation.
Therefore, fair participation is very critical to our appreciation of the link between an even playing field and democratic electoral competition. This is partly because [fair] competition is the cornerstone of democracy. However, for competition to be democratic, it depends on the degree of contestability.
Contestability refers to the fairness of the political contest between political actors and parties. There are many factors that are crucial for any election to pass the test of fair competition.
These include: fair access to the campaign finance and field, access to the public media, independence of the electoral management bodies, impartiality of the judiciary and security forces, transparency in voter registration and independence of traditional leaders.
In short, the concept of playing field denotes the level of fairness in electoral competition. A level playing field refers to a situation where no group participating in an election has a better chance at winning, as a result of unfair conditions.
Thus, the field can be described as uneven when it favours the incumbent at the expense of the competitors. It can also be classified as even when it allows all political actors to have an equal opportunity to be elected by the masses.
In order to assess whether or not the playing field is even, political scientists argue that it can be determined by identifying where the opposition’s ability to organise and compete in elections is seriously handicapped as a result of incumbency advantage throughout the electoral cycle.
The key issue here is throughout the electoral cycle. This suggests that the voter registration exercise, gerrymandering of constituencies, voter education, allocation of polling stations, production and distribution of the ballot papers, media coverage in the public media, observation of the election and counting of ballots and announcement of results must pass the test of fairness.
An uneven playing field is, therefore, defined as one in which incumbent’s abuse of the State generates such disparities in access to resources, media, or State institutions that opposition parties’ ability to organise and compete for national office is seriously impaired.
Thus, the playing field is fundamentally about incumbents’ abuse of State power in order to generate relative differences in access to resources, media and the law between the incumbent and opposition, both during and between elections.
How has Zimbabwe fared thus far?
Although there are genuine concerns from the opposition and civil society actors on the need to address outstanding electoral issues, there seems to be some kind of acknowledgement that we are in a better political space when compared to the 2008 election period.
Not only has the political environment improved, but also the voters have become more discerning and demanding judging from the social media, street and borehole conversations around policies, personalities and the Zimbabwean question.
Gone are the days of empty slogans, populist rhetoric and political grandstanding, voters are increasingly asking the hard questions and interrogating the profiles and promises of their elected officials.
Most opposition parties and candidates, including the leader of the MDC Alliance, Nelson Chamisa, have managed to go around the country canvassing for political support without encountering any major restrictions and political violence.
Since the turn of the century, the opposition political parties have found it difficult to campaign in rural areas and even in some cases were not welcomed by traditional leaders to hold rallies in their areas of jurisdiction.
Furthermore, legal repression in the form of the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) made it difficult for opposition parties and candidates to get police clearance to hold rallies. Rural areas were largely no-go areas for the opposition parties. Youth militia made it difficult to access certain constituencies for opposition parties.
However, the situation has, somehow, changed and there have not been any reports of police refusing to grant clearances. With the exception of intra-party violence, which accompanied primary elections, there have been fewer cases of inter-party violence when compared to the 2008 and 2013 elections.
Moreover, the government has invited regional and international observers from countries, especially, from the European Union, which were at loggerheads with the previous regime.
Another change has been the establishment of the special election violence courts and the active participation of key organs, such as the police and the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission (NPRC) in the promotion of peaceful campaigns, tolerance and reconciliation.
Although, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has begun to air interviews of leaders and candidates from opposition parties, access to the public media remains skewed in favour of the incumbent. The unfair coverage of opposition parties has been confirmed by daily surveys by the Media Monitors.
Section 160 of the Electoral Act is very clear that during an election period broadcasters and print publishers should ensure that all political parties and candidates are treated equitably in their news, in regard to the extent, timing, prominence of the coverage accorded to them, reports on the election in their news media are factually accurate, complete and fair, a clear distinction is made in their news between factual reporting on the election and editorial comment on it, inaccuracies in reports on the election in their news media are rectified without delay and with due prominence and their news media do not promote political parties or candidates that encourage violence or hatred against any class of persons in Zimbabwe.
Thus far the public media (both print and broadcast) have been found wanting on a number of areas. Their coverage remains largely negative and sporadic. Whereas, the incumbent enjoys the luxuries of live broadcasting, opposition parties have not been afforded such treatment. They have had to rely on Facebook live broadcasts and pirate radio stations to get traction beyond the newspapers and street talk.
A free, fair and credible election cannot be delivered on the backdrop of an unfair advantage when it comes to access to the public media system. In a country where over 60% of the people (possibly electorate) live in the rural areas and rely on radio stations to get political news and information, it is important that access to the public radio and television be democratised.
Whilst community and commercial radio stations licensed during the tenure of the government of national unity are doing a commendable job to host public debates and allowing contacting practices between the electorate and elected officials, these are only reaching mostly urban voters, which suggests there is need for all parties and candidates to have access to ZBC radio channels to reach the rural electorate.
Although there is no law which compels the Zec to involve political parties in the procurement of ballot papers and to disclose suppliers of election materials, it is important for the organisation to ensure there is transparency and accountability so that our election pass the litmus test of contestability.
Beyond opening the printing of ballot papers to all political contestants, there is also greater need to ensure all other key stages of the election value chain are transparent to local, regional and international observers.
There is also need for media diversity for fairness to be observed in an election. Media plurality may not be able to offer the electorate with diverse set of news needed to make informed choices.
Going forward, the licensing of community radio and television stations should occupy centre stage in order to expose the electorate to as much more diverse campaign information as possible.
Electoral campaigns must be fair for both men and women, as well as between the old and the young. Given the patriarchal set up of our society, electoral contests which require financial resources tend to favour males and older politicians at the expense of females and younger candidates.
Female candidates, for instance, face several hurdles to navigate the brutal primary elections, which are the foundation of internal party democratic processes.
Otherwise, the African Union’s objective of the 50:50 representation will remain a pipe-dream, unless we find political will to mainstream gender and age into our formal politics.
Whilst some shifts have already taken place, there is room for a more open electoral system to be established anchored by accountability, transparency and fairness.
Dr. Admire Mare is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. Here, he writes in his personal capacity.