Electoral reforms must dominate political discourse in 2022

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ZEC-Headquarters-Harare

Luke Tamborinyoka
AS we bask on the cusp of a new year, Zimbabweans appear to have gone agog about the pending by-elections and what many deem to be the watershed plebiscite of 2023.

And yet for some of us, highly expectant conversations about the pending elections that are not grounded on context are  false discourse.

The proper discourse should be about agreeing and implementing a raft of comprehensive reforms so that we break the vicious cycle of disputed elections that has afflicted this country since independence in 1980.

As we commence this crucial year, the nation should engage in animated conversations not about elections per se but about the quality and character of those elections so that this important exercise of choosing our national and local government leaders ceases to be a meaningless ritual.

It is only the implementation of agreed reforms that can afford us “herd immunity” against the unfolding pandemic of illegitimacy that has now affected all pillars of the State.

Indeed, we now have an illegitimate Executive headed by an illegitimate President, an illegitimate Judiciary headed by a disputed and illegitimate Chief Justice as well as an illegitimate Parliament where representatives legitimately elected by the people have been recalled through murky agents and processes.

The spectre of illegitimacy has now permeated all facets of the body politic and only a truly free, fair and credible plebiscite undergirded by a raft of comprehensive reforms can take us back to an uninterrupted path to legitimacy.

Today, the talk should not be about the pending by-elections or the 2023 watershed polls.

The deeper discourse should be about a basket of cogent reforms to ensure that our electoral processes do not continue to breed contested outcomes.

We have walked this tenuous road before and we must now move to the deeper discourse of the character and nature of our national elections.

It is not enough to fulfil a calendar assignment when it comes to the holding of elections.

Therefore, it is nationally profitable for the reform discourse to now start dominating all public platforms in Zimbabwe.

Without substantive electoral reforms in this country, our elections will continue to be a meaningless charade.

I have noted the so-called reforms that have recently been touted by the Political Actors Dialogue (Polad), which reforms some of us feel, are grossly inadequate to cure the rot in our electoral processes.

Some of us have noted a self-serving “reform” in which our Polad friends want the threshold for funding under the Political Parties Finance Act to be lowered so that almost every other political “party” qualifies for funding.

The Polad crew argues that this must be done to promote multi-party democracy in the country when in fact our comrades — who recently received luxurious cars from (President) Emmerson Mnangagwa — appear to be on a sinister crusade of self-enrichment. But that is a story for another day.

Let it be stated here that notwithstanding their frailties — and there were quite a number of them — the combined MDC component in the inclusive government achieved a lot in the reform agenda by forcing the debate and adoption of a new Constitution on an adamant and reluctant Zanu PF that did not even regard a new Constitution as a priority for the country.

The new Constitution, adopted and affirmed in a referendum in May 2013, goes a long way in setting the benchmark for a new culture of conducting political business in the country, including clarity on the nature, character and quality of our national elections.

The ancient regime in Zimbabwe and the so-called new dispensation may have ignored implementing significant aspects of the new Constitution and brazenly and extra-judicially amended others but in many respects, our Constitution remains a major reform achievement that has set loftier parameters and higher benchmarks for a whole host of processes, including how our elections ought to be conducted.

When it comes to elections, it should be noted that the cumulative number of recommendations from observer mission reports after every election are often reflective of the inadequacies of those elections.

The higher the number of recommendations from observer missions, the poorer the electoral standards and the higher the number of issues that ought to be addressed ahead of the next poll.

It is, therefore, telling that there were a whopping 223 recommendations from observer mission reports after the 2018 polls in Zimbabwe, compared to just about 15 after the last election in South Africa.

This speaks to a high number of frailties that observer missions felt should be addressed to improve the quality and credibility of national elections in Zimbabwe.

Below, I table what we feel could be the reforms that would engender legitimacy and ensure that the country breaks this vicious cycle of disputed elections that has bred disputed outcomes, blighted our electoral record in Africa and made us an international pariah.

The few reforms that I table here are largely culled from our principles for an inclusive and credible election (price) document that we have developed as the MDC Alliance. However, I have added fresh issues that are at the core of our disputed elections as well as some historical and personal experiences so as to contextualise the key demands and proposals in the electoral reform agenda.

The electoral reform proposals contained therein are largely a summation of the recommendations of electoral players in the last election as well as the key recommendations of the various observer mission reports from Africa and the broader international community who observed our disputed 2018 elections.

The recommendations by observer missions and the historical issues and experiences tabled below have all been made in good faith and in a bid to improve the quality and credibility of our electoral processes.

  • A truly independent Zec

While the autonomy and independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is enshrined in the Constitution, the reality is somewhat different. Zec must truly be independent in both form and substance. Its financial independence must equally be guaranteed, not the current scenario where it appears to be an extension of the Executive through the Justice ministry.

Zec must be seen to be in charge of all matters to do with elections, not to allow members of the Executive to usurp its powers by using subsidiary legislation to suspend elections Zec would have pronounced, as happened when Zec allowed (Vice-President) Health minister Constantino Chiwenga to ride roughshod over it by giving the impression that the Executive was in charge of all electoral business in this country.

We need a truly independent Zec that does not pander to the whims of the Executive and that does not appear to be subservient to partisan political interests. The conduct of Zec over the years has exposed a malleable election-management body run from the Zanu PF headquarters. Zec must be truly independent and must have guaranteed financial independence that enables it to independently execute its constitutional mandate.

  • Real time auditable result transmission, management and announcement system

All election results, including presidential, must be announced in real time after being signed off by all contesting parties at every level from the polling station to the national command centre.

Jonathan Moyo’s Excelgate has exposed the murkiness in the process in which the 2018 presidential election results were transmitted. It was a dubious process that was shorn of accountability and transparency and in which massive fiddling took centre stage.

The charade that we saw in the last election in which Nelson Chamisa’s election agents were made to wait in vain at the national command centre while the presidential election results were eventually announced without them being allowed the opportunity to verify and sign them off before they are announced must be a thing of the past.

Our elections are harmonised polls and all results must be traceable and must be transmitted through a transparent and known process that is clean and auditable from the polling station to the national command centre. This did not happen in the last election.

  • Security services’ involvement in elections

In Zimbabwe, the military has always been the elephant in the room when it comes to political and electoral processes.

While there is a constitutional cardinal that disallows the military from meddling in civilian processes including elections, the reality is that the army has always violated the supreme law of the land in this regard.

Perhaps the stand-out statement that showcases the military’s meddling in the country’s electoral processes was the infamous January 9 2002 statement when the then Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commander General Vitalis Zvinavashe announced on the eve of a presidential election that the presidency was a “straitjacket” and that the army would only salute a president who had liberation war credentials.

This was a coup of sorts and a subversion of electoral processes as it meant that out of all the presidential candidates who had successfully filed their nomination papers, the military was saying it would only accept one outcome.

At the time Zvinavashe made his infamous statement, the national election-management body, then called the Electoral Supervisory Commission, was chaired by Sobusa Gula-Ndebele, a retired soldier, while the chief executive officer was Douglas Nyikayaramba, then a serving military commander — all pointing to the militarisation of the country’s electoral process.

The 2002 presidential election was run as a military operation because the national command centre, directly run by the military, was first established at the then Sheraton Hotel before it was moved to Manyame Airbase.

The problem of the militarisation of our elections is a historical one that has endured to this day and is a matter crying out loud for reform, especially after Zec has now publicly confirmed that 15% of its secretariat are members of the security forces.

Utoile Silaigwana, a securocrat who is Zec’s chief elections officer is the biggest human evidence that the secretariat of the country’s election-management body needs to be de-securitised.

This is not to mention that former military commanders such as George Chiweshe, now a High Court judge, have at one point been allowed to take charge of the national election-management body and to actually run elections in this country.

In March 2008, after the Zanu PF election loss, military commanders were assigned to the country’s 10 provinces where they orchestrated massive violence so as to reverse and subvert the people’s will in the contrived but bloody run-off poll that was held on June 27 the same year.

The military must be proscribed from meddling in civilian processes such as elections. It is sad that even clear and unequivocal constitutional provisions have failed to contain the military’s kantankerous and wayward behaviour when it comes to the country’s electoral processes.

The nation must debate and agree on how the military’s excesses during elections could be curbed, notwithstanding clear constitutional provisions proscribing the same. These measures could include a public pledge by the military to abide by the will of the people as expressed in elections.

The pledge must be matched by concomitant behaviour. The other reform needed when it comes to containing military excesses is to operationalise section 210 of the Constitution by setting up an Independent Complaints Commission that protects complainants and/or witnesses against members of the security services who perpetuate political and electoral malpractices.

It has not helped to inspire confidence that the members of the security services, who brazenly killed citizens in August 2018 and in January 2019, have not been prosecuted in line with the recommendations of a commission of inquiry set up by none other than Mnangagwa himself.

There is no guarantee that any action will be taken against members of the county’s security services if they engage in violence and other malpractices ahead of and during the watershed 2023 plebiscite.

It has also not helped matters that on the eve of the coup in 2017, then ZDF commander and now Vice-President Chiwenga went public and said the national army was a “stockholder” in Zanu PF, a poignant confirmation that the remit of the country’s military is not about protecting Zimbabwe’s interests but protecting the interests of Zanu PF as a political party, itself a brazen violation of the Constitution.

  • Protecting and ensuring the right to vote for all citizens — including those in the diaspora

The right of all Zimbabweans to vote is not negotiable as it is clearly and unequivocally enshrined in the Constitution. The full observation of the right to vote (universal suffrage) is guaranteed by the Constitution and the State must ensure that it puts in place mechanisms to enable every Zimbabwean to enjoy that cardinal right. The basic constitutional principle enshrined in section 67 stipulates that every citizen who is 18 years and above must be allowed to vote.

Every Zimbabwean, wherever they are including the millions of our compatriots in the diaspora, must be accorded this right without fetter or conditions. This right must also be accorded to groups that include prisoners, hospitalised persons and all civil servants on duty on the day of the polls. No one must be disenfranchised as has happened in previous elections to all the above-mentioned groups.

It must also be mentioned that there must be full transparency around the so-called special voting where the secrecy of one’s vote must not only be guaranteed but where each of such special votes must count.

  • Depoliticised State institutions

Before, during and after elections, all State institutions including the police, army and the courts, among others, must play a depoliticised role by stopping all actions that further or hinder the interests of a political party or cause in line with the dictates of the Constitution.

We have noted in previous elections the use of State institutions to advance the interests of Zanu PF and to proscribe the political activities of other political players.

For example, we have seen the weaponisation of the COVID-19 pandemic where Zanu PF electoral processes such as district co-ordinating committee elections and provincial elections have been allowed to take place while the political activities of other political players have been banned.

  • Inclusive voter registration and an accessible, auditable voters’ roll

The State must ensure that all Zimbabweans register to vote and this starts by ensuring that it is made easy for anyone who wants to acquire IDs so that they can exercise their right to vote for a political party of their choice.

We have noted spanners and impediments being thrown into the processes of ID acquisition and voter registration. Only in December 2021, a decentralised voter registration exercise that was scheduled to start on December 6 was cancelled for no apparent reason.

The Registrar-General’s office has also jumped into the disenfranchising fray, saying it can’t issue IDs because it has no ink due to sanctions.

All this is part of a well-choreographed script to disenfranchise Zimbabweans from exercising their right to vote.

In the 2013 election for example, where I had a closer peek on the electoral issues, there was absolutely no transparency on the quantity and processes around the printing and procurement of election material. Ditto the situation in 2018.

In 2013 for example, there were 343 187 voters above 80 years of age on the voters’ roll, even though the national census held in the preceding year had registered 155 753 people to be above 80 years in the country.

It is such discrepancies and inconsistencies on statistical data that open the floodgates for electoral pilferage. The 2023 elections will come a year after the national census and the story of inconsistent statistical data between the census and the voting figures is likely to continue.

It was also highly suspicious in 2013 that in a country touted to have one of the highest literacy rates on the continent, some 206 901 people, almost a quarter of a million people, were assisted voters.

We even had an interesting case in Mashonaland Central province in 2013 where some Zanu PF youths who had dropped out of school ensured that their former school head was an assisted voter ostensibly on grounds of illiteracy. They wanted to ensure that he voted for Zanu PF.

Our voters’ roll, which is a highly secretive document that is often made available on the eve of elections as hard copies that are not electronically analysable, has always been a shambolic document with multiple duplicated names.

A meeting between the then Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and then President Robert Mugabe on the eve of the 2013 election is a case in point.

The meeting was facilitated by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and at that meeting, Mr Tsvangirai presented a couple of pages showing multiple duplicated names that showcased the shambolic state of the voters’ roll that was to be used the following day.

At that meeting, Mugabe reportedly feigned surprise as he reclined into his chair after the shambolic voters’ roll was presented and said: “Just how is the Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede doing his work?”

The reform here is that the voters’ roll must simply be a clean roll and must timely be provided to all contesting parties and candidates in a searchable and analysable format.

  • Media and political reforms

Political reforms include those issues that must ensure the free and unfettered legitimate political activity of all the political players contesting an election. Political reforms must generally enable free political activity and deal with issues that affect the electoral environment.

In this country, we have seen State-sanctioned political violence against opposition political players and activists. Over the years, we have also seen Zanu PF being allowed free rein to campaign while the activities of other players are brutally proscribed.

Only recently, we saw the legitimate leader of the country’s opposition Chamisa being prevented from making forays into Zimbabwe’s rural hinterland. His convoy was in fact viciously attacked in Masvingo. In Gutu, an innocent family man was recently brutally attacked and killed for having attended Chamisa’s political meetings. Because an election is a process and not an event, one can safely conclude that the ground is not even ahead of the watershed polls of 2023.

The reform here is that punitive measures outlawing violence, vote-buying, intimidation, abuse of aid or the abuse of State resources for campaigning must be instituted for political parties, candidates and other election stakeholders.

  • Media reforms

All politics is a battle of messages and the Constitution is very clear particularly on the role of the public media in affording divergent views and equal coverage to all parties and candidates. Section 61 of the Constitution is instructive in this regard.

Section 155(2)(d) of the Constitution is clear and unequivocal that all contesting parties and candidates contesting an election must be granted equal coverage in the public media.

The sole national broadcaster, ZBC, has often failed in this regard as it has almost always granted exclusive coverage to Zanu PF and its candidates.

In the 2013 election, the AU in its observer mission report bemoaned that the State broadcaster had only granted live coverage to rallies by the Zanu PF presidential candidate in violation of best international standards and regional guidelines exhorting fair and equal coverage.

I had a nasty personal experience in this regard. On Saturday, July 6 2013, as the spokesperson for the late Tsvangirai, I wrote to ZBC demanding live coverage for the MDC’s election campaign launch at Rudhaka Stadium in Marondera.

The State broadcaster wrote back to me and demanded US$165 000, even though it had granted Zanu PF free live coverage only the previous day at Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield, Harare.

In July 2019, High Court judge Justice Joseph Mafusire made a landmark ruling that the public media were biased in favour of Zanu PF in their coverage of the 2018 elections.

We cannot proceed to the next election unless and until there are guarantees that the public media will accord all parties and candidates fair and equal coverage as demanded by the supreme law of the land.

It cannot be a free and fair election if the public media funded by the taxpayer are granting unfettered coverage to only one of the contesting parties and candidates.

  • Depoliticised distribution of inputs and food handouts

The use of food as a political weapon especially during elections has been widespread in our context.

This is an election environment issue as the weaponisation of food handouts tilts the election scales in favour of Zanu PF. In Goromonzi West in 2018, Energy Mutodi had tonnes of maize that he kept at Nyamande turn-off in Domboshava, which he distributed to voters on the eve of the election in a brazen case of vote-buying to which Zec turned a blind eye.

Food must be distributed in a non-partisan manner and Zanu PF must be stopped from reaping a political dividend from the people’s hunger.

  • Agreement on the procurement and storage of election material

The procurement, management and storage of all election materials must be transparent.

In particular the identity of the printers of electoral ballots, the number of printed ballots and the extras must be known to all contesting parties and candidates. We have seen in other countries in the region contesting parties agreeing on the firm that prints the ballots and the agents of all the contesting parties boarding the same plane to collect the ballots to be used in an election. That is as it should be.

In our case, only Zanu PF knows by who, how many and where the ballots have been printed, oftentimes amid serious anomalies on the printed ballots and the number of people on the voters roll.

On the whole, the procurement, management and storage of all election material must be transparent and above board.

Conclusion

Indeed, as we begin the year ahead of the pending by-elections and the 2023 watershed polls, we must all up the ante not on the rhetoric of elections but on the substance of those elections.

We must all harp on the supremacy of the Constitution, which Constitution must be seen to be supreme in all our electoral processes.

The continued invocation of the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act in setting the election date, amending the Electoral Act, and promulgating electoral regulations is a clear breach of best international practice.

It means that the President, who in most cases will be a candidate in the election, is allowed to set and amend the rules of a game in which he is a player.

The national chorus in the year 2022 must be about the agreement and implementation of a raft of comprehensive reforms so as to ensure credible polls that will break the vicious cycle of disputed polls that has been the hallmark of our electoral processes for the past 41 years.

In some cases, as in the case of media reform, the reform needed is simply compliance with the provisions of the Constitution. This is not a difficult or expensive reform to implement.

Indeed, only a credible, watertight harmonised plebiscite will clothe and cover up the nudity of illegitimacy engulfing the lot in power in this country.

They have stolen everything — from the county’s vast mineral wealth to our collective dignity, from elections to the future and the hopes of our children.

These kleptocrats want to continue stealing everything and it all starts by stealing elections. That is why the issue of comprehensive electoral reforms must be the dominant discourse in 2022.

Indeed, the mantra this year must be reform, reform and more reform. There must be reforms or else the deluge. If they insist they won’t reform themselves out of power, then they must for the national good be goaded and stampeded into the reform agenda, by any means necessary.

Only a free, fair and credible poll and an assured process of peaceful transfer of power can stop this thieving lot that appears hell-bent on making Zimbabwe an upper-middle kleptocracy by 2030.

  • Luke Tamborinyoka is the deputy secretary for presidential affairs in the MDC Alliance . You can interact with him on his Facebook page or on the twitter handle @ luke_tambo. He writes here in his personal capacity