ZIMBABWE Electoral Commission (Zec) acting chief elections officer Utoile Silaigwana (US) was the main actor in the July 30 elections, whose outcome has been disputed by MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa.
INTERVIEW: Blessed Mhlanga
Last week, Silaigwana had a lengthy interview with NewsDay (ND) senior reporter Blessed Mhlanga, where he reflected on the just-ended election, the work done by Zec post-elections, and areas in elections management that need improvement. Below are the excepts of the interview.
ND: People would like to know what Zec does after the elections: do you go to sleep and wait for another election five years later?
US: Zec does a lot of things after elections. For example, we had our elections on July 30, and already we have a by-election in Chimanimani, which is coming this month. In November-December, we are likely to have another election in Mutoko North, where the former Member of Parliament left that seat after she was elected to be Senate president.
We do by-elections because our law provides for that. So apart from that, we do what we call professionalising the elections management body. We are going to do a lot of training for our officials so that they become professional and internationally-recognised election managers.
You may be aware again that our officers time and again are actually asked by other [electoral management bodies] EMBs to come and assist in training or organising elections outside our borders.
ND: So, are you already planning for the 2023 elections?
US: Yes, as we are going into the 2023 general elections, we need to prepare and that preparation involves us doing delimitation, because remember we now do delimitation after every 10 years, which is after every census has been done. So we are preparing for that.
So we have a lot to do in-between elections. That is why we are looking at elections as a cycle. We are also reviewing what we have done, and if we have not done exceptionally well, we aim to improve. We are also going to make recommendations to Parliament on certain reforms which we think are necessary.
As I speak, we are preparing a very comprehensive evaluation of our elections, right from the district, provincial and right up to national level. We are also preparing a report for Parliament because we are accountable to Parliament.
Then we have the pre-election period which is the longer period. We will be doing training; we will be doing a lot of collaborations with other EMBs in the region, a lot of continuous voter education. Remember, it’s a legal requirement, we will also be doing continuous voter registration.
ND: Can you elaborate on the continuous voter registration exercise. Where do people register right now if they so wish?
US: In terms of the law, Zec must register people whether there is an election or not. So if you go to our district offices, you will be able to register. That is why we are decentralised right up to district level.
ND: Your thoughts on reports from various observer groups involved in the July 30 poll?
US: We have received preliminary reports. The full reports will be coming, but from the preliminary reports I can tell you that we are very, very excited because the majority of them, I think about 90% of them, are commending us for a job well done. There are a few, of course, who said we need to improve in terms of our publicity.
Yes, we are aware there is no perfect election under the sun, but the initial reports that we got are impressive, but we must not sit on our laurels because of that. That’s why I am talking about Zec keeping on training our staff.
ND: A number of legal issues were raised during the last elections. Will Zec be looking at having any amendments of the laws to address these concerns?
US: Yes, of course, as I said that in every election, you will find one or two things that need to be improved; be they legal or administrative and as I have said, once we get all the comprehensive and the full reports from the observers, we will take them into account.
If the recommendations have legal implications, we will pass them to Parliament. Other recommendations, which may be administrative, we will take on board.
ND: What is you vision as you look into the 2023 general elections in light of the complaints that have been raised against Zec.
US: Our vision, we want to be the centre of excellence in the conduct of elections and the excellence comes in the way individual officers conduct themselves.
We want to inculcate the issue of professionalism from an individual point of view, and we want to develop our staff so that they understand very well how elections relate to democracy; how elections relate to human rights, relate to economic development, because a good election leads to stability in the country and, therefore, economic development.
We want to make sure that in the next election, those minor issues, the things we did not get right, are corrected.
ND: With all the criticism Zec has received, have you ever considered resigning?
US: What motivates me to keep standing upright is I believe that we conducted this election in terms of the existing law and we did not violate any law; that’s what keeps me standing because perception, well, it’s something else.
As an election manager, I look at the law; have we conducted the elections in terms of the law. Have we provided what is expected of us? Yes.
If we had violated the country’s laws in terms of running the elections, I would not be standing upright like now.
So in terms of that, that’s why I am standing and I hope we are going to do more collectively as the Zec and, of course, with every citizen contributing to a free and fair election.
The onus is also on the players themselves. They also have a role to play in terms of making the elections free and fair. The media also has a role, and society has a role in making elections credible.
ND: Do you have any regrets?
US: It terms of the technical aspect of management of elections, no regrets, but in terms of the polarisation which is political, which is outside Zec, yes, I have regrets because I think our society must move from polarising itself to depolarising itself.
I think the major player outside the election period is the media because our people, literate as they are, are very good at reading and the media provides the fodder. That does not mean they (media) must not criticise us where we are not doing well.
ND: You have a delegation from Ethiopia which is visiting Zec. What is the purpose of their visit?
US: Yes, we have a delegation, the Elections Board of Ethiopia who have requested to come to Zec and learn how to professionally conduct elections.
This follows the visit by the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia who was, in fact, the head of the African Union delegation. I think he was impressed by the professionalism displayed by Zec in terms of the technical aspect of conducting elections.
ND: Does this give any validation of your work, given that you have been under attack for failing to run elections professionally?
US: This is not the only group that has come to Zec. The Elections Management Board of Lesotho also came to learn and we hear many more want to visit; just to come and learn after the conduct of elections that we did. This is testimony to our professionalism in the conduct of elections.
ND: What exactly are you teaching them?
US: They are asking a lot of things like how we carried out BVR. You are aware that we came up with a completely new voters’ roll in record time. They want to know how we did it and you are aware that we only started registering voters in September and before the elections in July, we already had a voters’ roll.
In other countries, they take about two to three years to come up with a voters’ roll. So that’s what impressed them, so they want to see how we are doing it.
They are also asking us how we interact with stakeholders; I think they heard during the visit of the observer group here that we had an extensive engagement with stakeholders.
They are also asking issues to do with voter education, because they learnt that we had more than 70 civil society organisations for that exercise.
As Zec, we feel proud and it also gives us some kind of confidence to do more in terms of professionalising.
ND: Are there any similarities in terms of how elections are run in Zimbabwe and say, Ethiopia?
US: Yes, the similarities are there in terms of the principles, but it is the technical aspects, the handling of it that they might want to learn; like how we did it in record time.
ND: You speak highly of BVR which has been condemned by other stakeholders.
US: We ran a good voter education programme and as an elections management body, we realised that we could not do it alone, so we roped in civil society organisations.
Democracy must be the responsibility of every citizen. There is also the issue of interaction with the media, and we are saying, look, even before we started doing our BVR, we have been engaging media extensively on what we were doing, where we were and things like that and as a result the media also come on board and supporting the democratic process.
ND: Can you s hed light on the relationships you have with the visiting EMBs.
US: We have the African Charter on elections and democracy, which is continental. We also have regional organisations like Sadc, where we have principles and guidelines on how to conduct elections.
The bottom line is we want to conduct elections based on the principles that are internationally recognised.