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Can Zimbabwe hold a credible election?

Sport
The most useful frame for looking at elections was to see that there were five pillars that must be in place for an election in Zimbabwe to pass national, regional, continental, and international muster.

BY SAPES TRUST The Southern Africa Political Economy Series (Sapes) Trust on August 18 held a webinar series to examine Zimbabwe’s readiness for the holding of elections that will be acceptable to the nation, the region, the African continent, and the wider international community.

This first webinar, held on 18 August 2022, examined the more general context for eh holding of elections next year, bringing together an expert panel under the moderation of Ibbo Mandaza, director of the SAPES Trust.

It featured Phillan Zamchiya, a senior researcher at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies as the keynote speaker, with Barbra Ontibile Bhebe (executive director of the Election Resource Centre and Ian Goredema (monitoring and observation officer, Zimbabwe Election Support Network) as discussants.

Below is a summary of the discussion.

Political context

Zamchiya outlined the problems that Zimbabwe will face in the coming election, expressing his scepticism that any of these will be solved by March 2023.

The most useful frame for looking at elections was to see that there were five pillars that must be in place for an election in Zimbabwe to pass national, regional, continental, and international muster.

These are simply outlined and then unpacked:

 Information  Inclusion  Insulation  Integrity  Irreversibility

This pillar refers to the ability of citizens to obtain all kinds of information, and not merely the openness of the media to reflecting the multiple perspectives of the electoral constants.

Here it is evident that the partisan nature of the state is a major limitation on the ability of Zimbabwean citizens to hear and understand what the various political parties are offering for governing the country.

This has been an endless complaint from multiple observer missions, opposition political parties, and citizens generally.

It also refers to the ability of citizens to engage with politicians and attend meetings and rallies without fear and constraint.

The banning of meetings and rallies of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) is an obvious (and recurrent) feature of the Zimbabwean electoral landscape.

This links directly to the second pillar, inclusion.

Inclusion

Inclusion refers to the notion that elections are about free and equal participation in the electoral process.

It refers to the ability of citizens to register as voters, to obtain Information (directly and indirectly), to be free from intimidation and violence, and for all forms of treating to be absent.

Inclusion has been a major problem over the past two decades, as well as in past decades since independence, let alone the denial of the vote to most Zimbabweans in the colonial era.

Zamchiya pointed out that denial of inclusion has been growing since the election process has gather steam.

Organised violence and torture (OVT) has been increasing since January 2022, with Zanu PF supporters and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) responsible for 78% of the alleged violations, and opposition political parties responsible for less than 2% of documented violations.

Clearly, the conditions for inclusion are absent.

Insulation

Insulation refers to both the ability to freely register as a voter and to freely vote, which have been problems in most elections in the past two decades.

Currently, there are the problems in registering as voters, with indications that the numbers registering are low.

This is partly due to the perception that elections are never free and fair, and also the difficulty in obtaining identity documents, the prerequisite for registering.

The ability to obtain an identity document is a major problem as this lies outside the control of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).

However, the impediments to registering were alleviated in 2013, mostly through lifting the requirement to prove residence by affidavit.

Freely voting is another matter, and the occasion where inclusion is most strongly affected by intimation and violence, most particularly in the rural areas.

Here the partisan role of traditional leaders is a serious problem, and the unconditional partisan position of many chiefs a big problem.

The conditions for insulation remain seriously flawed.

Integrity

Integrity refers to the impartiality and accountability of the election management body, ZEC.

There are many signs that ZEC is not impartial as is required by the constitution, including the significant numbers of military personnel working in the institution.

However, it is not merely ZEC that must be impartial in the electoral process: all government agencies must be impartial, and this is doubtful in the aftermath of the coup.

In particular the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) must be firmly under civilian control and politically impartial as required by the constitution.

Integrity requires all institutions to evince impartiality and accountability through the entire electoral cycle, covering all the antecedent conditions for the vote, the counting and reporting to the outcome, and through to the transparent and impartial dealing with disputes by the courts.

The available evidence is that integrity is wholly absent in Zimbabwe and will not be present until the coup is cured.

Irreversibility

Irreversibility refers to several things.

Firstly, that there is no reversing or tampering with results: the count and the outcome must reflect the will of the people.

Secondly, it refers to the acceptance of the results by the loser.

Here the outcome of the 2008 elections remains a dramatic example of non-irreversibility; where there was a result indicating that political power had shifted; where even the narrow victory of the MDC should have been graciously accepted (and supported by the region and the continent); but a violent second round resulted in the repudiation of the popular vote.

To this might be added the spurious recall of the MDC MPs elected in 2018, and the disenfranchisement of nearly one million voters.

Achieving irreversibility on the back of a militarised state will be exceptionally difficult.

On balance, none of the five pillars is present in Zimbabwe ahead of the 2023 elections.

Electoral context

The two discussants, Babra Bhebhe and Ian Goredema, then unpacked the technical issues underlying the five pillars.

Both pointed to the numerous recommendations, both local and international observers, following the 2018 elections.

Zimbabwean civil society, and especially the ERC and Zesn, immediately began the process of trying to get the government and (the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission) ZEC to address the many gaps in the electoral process, particularly the alignment of the Electoral Act with the requirements of the constitution.

Draft Bills have been prepared, but these have made very little progress, and with only seven months before elections in 2023, this has become critically urgent.

The reform process will have significant effect in improving integrity.

There were also extensive inputs of a range of issues that significantly affect the five pillars:

 The lack of independence in 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 remains a problem as in the past;  Voter education remains constrained and unduly controlled; 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. The open discussion raised several additional issues:  The need to build alliances across the region and the continent to support the conditions for a bona fide election  The need to ensure that the electoral dispute system, and specially the Constitutional Court (from which there is no appeal) are impartial  The need for strong civil society solidarity to ensure that the conditions for bona fide elections are put in place, and the urgency with which this must happen. Here it was pointed that planning for Kenyan elections took place way ahead of the just competed election  The need to decide on the appropriate response is a pre-election audit showed that the five pillars were not in place.  The importance of a more activist approach by election observers — national, regional, continental and international.

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