COVID-19 can’t stop elections: WHO

BY MOSES MATENGA

THE World Health Organisation (WHO) has poured cold water on government’s recent decision to suspend by-elections citing COVID-19 fears, saying elections could safely be held during pandemics as long as “proper measures are in place”.

Addressing a virtual Press conference on Wednesday, WHO executive director for health emergencies programme Michael Ryan said there was nothing to stop elections from taking place as they were an “essential part” of people’s lives.

He also said the world health body was ready to offer advice to countries going into elections to minimise risks of spreading the pandemic.

“It is possible to hold safe elections if the proper measures are put in place. Elections do many things. They are an essential part of our lives, and they are absolutely central to how many societies live, survive, and thrive,” Ryan said.

The utterances came as government has been taken to court for suspending parliamentary and council by-elections which were due in December this year, citing COVID-19 fears.

Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, who also doubles as Health minister, last week gazetted Statutory Instrument 225A of 2020 which indefinitely suspended the holding of by-elections to replace 15 MDC Alliance legislators and over 80 councillors who were recently recalled by the Thokozani Khupe-led MDC-T party.

Khupe recalled 32 MPs.

Some of the recalled MPs are party list legislators, and her party has since taken over the 15 slots, while she has landed the post of opposition leader in the House.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission also endorsed government’s decision to suspend the by-elections, but the move was widely condemned by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and other non-governmental organisations which felt the move violated the Constitution.

“They (elections) are very important parts of the cycle of life. However, they do tend to bring people together. We’ve seen many examples over the last nine months where elections have actually been held very safely and with appropriate measures and have been straightforward enough to manage and implement,” the WHO boss added.

“We do offer them advice on how to reduce those risks if in-person elections are the way forward. In fact, we are working right now and finalising specific guidance for countries that choose in-person elections, learning from the last eight, nine months as to what has worked in those circumstances. We will be issuing that guidance in the coming days.”

Malawi recently held its elections despite COVID-19 fears and other countries such as the United States, Ivory Coast and Tanzania are set to go to the polls soon.

“It takes effort. We have worked very closely in the past in the same way we have done for all types of mass gatherings. We have worked on a risk management approach. You cannot reduce the risk to zero, but what you can do is identify and manage those risks, especially where in-person voting is the choice of the country. We don’t specify to any country what the proper choice is for the type of election they need to run, that is based on their own risk assessment.”

Early this week, nine disgruntled Zimbabwean voters approached the High Court challenging government decision to suspend the by-elections.

The court application came at a time constitutional experts and human rights defenders accused the Harare administration of trampling on citizens’ rights under the guise of enforcing COVID-19 containment measures.

The matter spilled into Parliament yesterday with Speaker of the National Assembly Jacob Mudenda being quizzed by Mbizo MP Settlement Chikwinya (MDC Alliance) over the legality of statutory instruments (SIs) that did not pass through Parliament.

Mudenda admitted that SIs could only become law after being endorsed by the Parliamentary Legal Committee (PLC).

Chikwinya said: “I rise to seek clarity on the statement by the Speaker that the SIs do not necessarily become law unless they have passed through the PLC, but Mr Speaker, the majority of SIs that are promulgated by the ministers have a direct effect to the citizens and their contents are directly impacting on our citizens before Parliament has had a look at them. Is it in order for us to pass amendments to the provision so that SIs are first scrutinised by Parliament before they become effective to the citizenry?”

In response, Mudenda said: “Yes, in terms of the Standing Order numbers 20 and 28 that should be the position that they are scrutinised first by the PLC for their constitutionality so that nobody asks on them before Parliament has gone through them. So your point is noted.”

Chikwinya later said the SIs including the one that postponed the by-election, therefore, had no “force or effect”.

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