No confidence in polls if quality is compromised

Zimbabwe goes into polls before August this year.

AN audit of the country’s pre-election environment through a series of election policy discussions on every aspect of the electoral process came to unanimously negative conclusions.

It pointed out that many recommendations from international observers from the 2018 elections had been ignored, as had most of the recommendations by the Election Resource Centre and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network. But it cannot be business as usual.Elections in Zimbabwe since 2000 have not passed the test of best practice. Each one has led to electoral disputes in the courts and negative reporting by reputable election observer groups.

However, the political context was very different in each of those elections. Some of them (2000, 2005 and 2013) took place after long periods without civil strife, while others were held in a climate of economic turmoil or serious political violence (2002, 2008 and 2018).

In each of those elections the pre-election periods were very different, as were the polls. And apart from 2008, every election saw Zanu PF elected into government.

The election in 2023, however, takes place in a wholly different context. First, the country has not been in such dire circumstances before, with inflation rising rapidly, the economy sagging to unprecedented depths, food insecurity at world-beating levels and most of the population living below the poverty line. Scarcely the conditions in which a government is likely to be re-elected. Second, all the political forces in the country are in disarray.

Despite the rhetoric, both Zanu PF and the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) are fragmented, fractious and deeply distrusted by the general population. For example, an Afrobarometer survey in 2022 indicates that only 27% support Zanu-PF, 26% the CCC and 46% are “reticent” (would not vote, refused to answer, or didn’t know).

With so much at stake, it is obvious that the quality of this election, and the effect that this can have in moving the country from international disfavour to re-engagement, matters enormously.

It cannot be business as usual.

To determine whether these elections can meet the standards of best practice, the Sapes Trust and the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) have undertaken an audit of the pre-election conditions, and the probability that Zimbabwe will pass the test.

During the course of nine policy dialogues, 26 local, regional and international election experts have discussed every aspect of the electoral process leading up to the 2023 poll. The discussions ranged from technical issues, such as the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), delimitation and the voters’ roll, to the more citizen-critical issues like political violence, press and media freedom, and the role of the courts in elections.

Audit of the pre-election environment

Analysis of the nine previous election policy dialogues was organised around the five pillars originally posed in the first dialogue in August 2022. The conclusions from this dialogue were unanimously negative, pointing out that many recommendations for international observers from 2018 had been ignored, as had most of the recommendations made by the Election Resource Centre (ERC) and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn). Between the participants, they identified the following major problems:

The lack of independence in the Zec remains a significant concern;

Voter registration remains a concern, both because of the low uptake by citizens and the difficulties in getting identity documents;

The non-availability of the voters’ roll and the impeding of independent audits remain problems;

Voter education remains constrained and unduly controlled; and

The extreme political polarisation in Zimbabwe creates unfavourable political tensions for the holding of peaceful elections, as well as making the likelihood of a level playing field remote.

Ten months later, it was evident from the discussion on May 4 2023 that very little has changed. The one aspect not covered in the initial discussion was district delimitation, but as is evident from the two dialogues on delimitation, this has been wholly unsatisfactory: the report was disowned by a majority of the Zec commissioners and is the subject of court challenges. Analyses of the report indicate poor compliance with the constitution.

  • To be continued next week.
  • Mandaza is the director of the Sapes Trust and Reeler is a senior researcher at the Research and Advocacy Unit.

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