Electoral reform is not an event

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By Miriam Tose Majome
THE Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) is the most criticised of all the five independent commissions. Some of the criticism is fair and deserved, but some of it is unfair because of misinformation.  Calls for electoral reforms come from civic society groups, opposition parties and ordinary members of society. However, there isn’t always clarity and consensus about what exactly these reforms entail and the form they should take.

Part of the criticism is valid because the commission does make mistakes. No electoral system in the world is perfect and there is always room for improvement, but condemning the commission altogether is a sign of not taking time to study how it works and how it came about.

Zec is the country’s independent electoral  management body whose role is to ensure and guarantee political rights as enshrined in section 67 in the Constitution. Zec’s task is to ensure the rights of political parties and citizens to participate in politics and enjoy their political rights and freedoms in whichever way they choose to exercise them.  Among its many other roles, Zec has to ensure the conduct of free, fair and regular elections as prescribed in the Constitution. It was established in 2005 to manage the country’s elections after years of elections being conducted through the Registrar-General’s Office by the Electoral Supervisory Commission.

Many practical aspects of the electoral system and the legislation need to be improved, but it must always be remembered that the electoral reform process is a never ending evolving process. Electoral reform is not an event or a destination where the system is declared to have finally arrived. People old enough to have voted before 2008 will know how much the electoral system has changed and been reformed since then.  There is definitely more accountability and transparency than in the past.

The biggest of the electoral reforms was the establishment of Zec. Arguments can be made about certain technical aspects pertaining efficiency, independence or impartiality, but its indispensability is inarguable.  Since its establishment, Zec has presided over the most revolutionary electoral reforms in the country’s history. It is easy to forget that there was a time when ballot boxes were wooden and were shipped off to be counted somewhere far away from polling stations and other electoral practices that cannot be imagined now.

Most of the electoral reforms implemented in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries emerged from the recommendations of the  Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum Plenary Assembly held in Windhoek, Namibia in 2001. The recommendations were aimed at strengthening electoral institutions, reforming outdated legal frameworks and electoral practices and entrenching the democratic process through good electoral management and minimising electoral disputes. The recommendations  were  refined and adopted  as resolutions by the Sadc heads of State and governments in Mauritius in 2004. They are contained in the Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections document which is the rule book for election management for Sadc countries which adopted the principles.

The establishment of Zec was one of the longest  held aspirations of Zimbabweans. When the Registrar-General’s Office managed the elections during the Robert Mugabe era, the people yearned for a transparent and independent election management body. The openly partisan and opaque manner of the Registrar-General forced many people to agree on the urgent need to remove election management from State control.

Sadc countries acknowledged the inherent difficulties that come with the selection of members of independent electoral bodies. There is always the real possibility and danger that the members of commissions will be handpicked by political leaders to do their bidding and thus, compromise the intended independence and impartiality.  The plenary proposed a number of different ways to select people for the commissions. Member countries could modify the proposals in accordance with their own laws and political systems.

Another recommendation was for the electoral bodies to have their own budgets which are not directly allocated by the State but are voted for by Parliament. Electoral commissions would recruit their own support staff rather than have them seconded from government departments.

There is misconception about the selection of Zec commissioners as with the other four independent commissions there is misinformation. Contrary to popular opinion, commissioners are not handpicked by the President or seconded from the ruling party. Zec commissioners are selected by the Committee of Standing Rules and Orders of Parliament which is the biggest and most senior committee of Parliament. The committee comprises the most senior Members of Parliament from all the political parties represented in Parliament. Legislators from across the political divide work together to select the commissioners.

When vacancies arise, Parliament advertises for members of the public to nominate people of their choice to be commissioners. The Standing Orders and Rules Committee then invites some of them to attend open public interviews in Parliament. The successful candidates will be formally sworn in by the President. To this end, Parliament will soon be calling for nominations to fill the position that will be vacant when commissioner Joyce Kazembe formally retires from the commission in July this year.

  • Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer at Veritas and is also a commissioner at the Zimbabwe Media Commission. She writes in her personal capacity.