THE past few weeks have been tough for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec). After conducting a poll, which was disputed locally, regionally and internationally, the commission has received flak from all corners, including from the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Observer Mission, which blasted it saying it failed to hold elections that meet international standards. This week, the Zimbabwe Independent (ZI) spoke to chief elections officer Utoile Silaigwana (US, pictured) to hear his views on the election process and the reasons behind the chaos on election days. Below are excerpts of the interview:
ZI: What was your assessment of the just-ended elections? Were you satisfied?
US: Elections are a process, and we did not anticipate the process to be easy. However, despite a few challenges, the elections, in my view, were conducted in a peaceful environment and in accordance with the legal framework governing the conduct of elections in Zimbabwe. Above all, they reflect the will of the people of Zimbabwe. It is not for me to judge, but I will leave Zimbabweans to do so. It is our humble submission that we executed our mandate to the best of our ability.
ZI: What challenges did Zec face in organising these elections?
US: The major challenge during the 2023 harmonised elections preparations was what I may term “lawfare” against the commission. We had from unprecedented court petitions arising from the outcome of nomination courts, which derailed preparations and planning. Various cases were heard in the Bulawayo High Court, Harare High Court, Masvingo High Court, Chinhoyi High Court, Mutare High Court Supreme Court of Appeal and the Constitutional Court. While the right to approach a court to resolve a dispute or an infringement of freedom, which adversely affects a person’s rights or interests or the public interest is a fundamental human right, the exercise of that right had the effect of eating into proclaimed timelines by which certain matters had to be done. Through our legal team and staff, we managed to sail through despite the difficulties thrown our way.
ZI: There were logistical problems on election day, which caused delays to voting in many areas. Please take us through what was taking place behind the scenes. What caused the delays?
US: There were delays in voting in some areas largely due to the late delivery of voting materials emanating from delays in ballot paper printing as a consequence of the court cases. (Bear in mind that the majority of our polling stations opened on time).
This delay was by no means intentional and the commission worked tirelessly to ensure that voting materials were delivered to all affected areas. All available resources were marshalled towards ensuring that affected areas had the outstanding voting materials at the earliest possible time. Further, an extension was sought and granted to extend voting for all affected areas to August 24, 2023.
- Group demands ZSE listings for Fidelity suitors
- ‘Revisit EPOs regime, create fair ground’
- Group demands ZSE listings for Fidelity suitors
- ‘Revisit EPOs regime, create fair ground’
ZI: There were reports that Fidelity Printers and Refiners was overwhelmed, did this impact the quality of the ballots and contribute to the delays?
US: I am not qualified to comment on the issue of whether the printer was overwhelmed. But all I can say is that the organisation did rise to the occasion and we ensured that all people voted as per our mandate. The delays did not affect the quality of ballots printed as the usual standard was maintained. Teamwork made it possible (to make sure all people voted) and the conviction of the need to ensure that we fulfil our constitutional obligation and mandate.
ZI: Why did ballot papers run out at some polling stations when you had the total number of voters registered at each polling station?
US: The commission is still reviewing its processes to find out what caused the shortages in those areas where ballot papers ran out.
It could be several things ranging from failure to check the quantities delivered at each polling station to just human error, but like I said the commission is reviewing its processes to ascertain the causes for the shortages.
ZI: Can you also comment on allegations of disenfranchisement and voter suppression?
US: I do not believe that anyone was disenfranchised. The voter turnout percentages of all provinces do not support such a proposition. In any event, Statutory Instrument 85 of 2023 allowed voters to vote in places where challenges were faced. Note, that voting in Zimbabwe is voluntary and not a forced matter. From our analysis, we noted that there was an improvement in voter turnout in areas where there were delays in deliveries of ballots as compared to unaffected areas.
The turnout was over 70% in most cases. Nowhere in the world do we have 100% voter turnout. The initial budget was ZW$77 billion and this was topped up to compensate for inflationary pressure. Treasury provided adequate funding and we got all the required resources as and when required.
ZI: There were several concerns raised in the run-up to the elections. One was the delimitation process and report. The opposition alleged it was done to give Zanu PF an unfair advantage. Can you please comment on this?
US: The periodic delimitation of constituencies and wards is not a strange exercise in our law. Section 161 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe states that:“Once every 10 years, on a date or within a period fixed by the Commission to fall as soon as possible after a population census, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission must conduct a delimitation of the electoral boundaries into which Zimbabwe is to be divided”.
The commission is mandated to act in accordance with the laws of the land. We do not believe that such a constitutional obligation is done to give a certain party an advantage.
The delimitation report followed the dictates of the law and the matter was resolved by the Constitutional Court. As a commission, we did not carry out the process in favour of any particular political party.
ZI: How did you address the issues raised around the delimitation report?
US: The law provides for the commission to have a final say in terms of the delimitation report. The commission received inputs from parliament and the Executive on the Preliminary Delimitation Report and due consideration was given to issues raised before coming up with the final report. For the record all raised concerns were duly addressed and feedback was provided on the matter.
ZI: If you had to review the process, what areas do you think need to be reviewed and improved?
US: This is the process that the commission will be embarking on shortly and will form part of our report on the harmonised elections so I do want to pre-empt this crucial process.
ZI: Sadc and the opposition also raised issues around procurement processes saying these were not followed, as stated in the law. Can you comment on this?
US: Procurement in Zimbabwe is governed by the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act and the commission duly followed the provisions of the law. As far as we are concerned, we did not break any laws of the country.
ZI: On the voters’ roll, many concerns were raised by the opposition during the pre-election period and also by the Sadc Observer Mission. Please take us through what happened?
US: Successful candidates are provided with a voters’ roll for the election they are contesting in and this was done as per the dictates of the law.
This voters’ roll contains the names of all registered voters for the constituency or ward in which a candidate is contesting and it is the one that candidates were given, save for the Presidential candidates who received copies of the consolidated national voters’ roll, which took into account all wards and constituencies in the country.
The polling station-based voters roll was the one used on polling day but did not contain any material changes to the voters’ rolls that had been issued out to candidates save for the fact that the information was disaggregated to polling stations.
ZI: After the polls, preliminary observer reports also raised issues with the way Zec handled elections, with the Sadc one stating that you contravened the Constitution. What is your view on these allegations?
US: That is an opinion, which any person is entitled to give. For us, we did not violate the Constitution in any way. We conducted the election in accordance with the legal framework governing the conduct of elections in Zimbabwe. There are no court cases that the parties have lodged, which suggest otherwise. However, where there is constructive criticism, we will certainly pay explicit attention to it to improve our processes and systems.
ZI: Can you respond to allegations of credibility and falling short of international standards?
US: As indicated above those allegations are based on the opinions of those who made them, which they are entitled to give. Our polls were held in an environment, which was peaceful and where electioneering activity was allowed to take place without fear or coercion, intimidation or reprisals.
It would be helpful to the commission if specificity was given as opposed to broad allegations as this would allow the commission to interrogate the issue and assess if it indeed fell short of the standard and thus find ways of remedying it for the future.
ZI: Concerns over potential rigging of the polls are raised at every election. Have you addressed them with the concerned parties?
US: People always raise issues around the aspect of rigging of elections, which remain unsubstantiated. Our electoral law gives aggrieved candidates avenues for redress should they feel that election malpractices have taken place.
As a Commission, we do not condone any form of electoral malpractice and maintain that in our opinion no rigging takes place. If one has proof to that effect we advise that they approach the electoral courts for redress.
ZI: What lessons can be learnt from these elections and what were the takeaways from the observer mission reports that can be implemented in the next elections?
US: No one election is the same. We learn from every election and endeavour to improve and better our systems. We are still studying the observer reports and once we have a full picture of the different aspects then we can be in a position to advise on what can be recommended for adoption in Zimbabwe going forward.
ZI: This includes concerns raised around the nomination fees, what is your comment on this?
US: Nomination fees are statutory fees. All we can do as a Commission is to make recommendations to the Ministry of Justice Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. If one is aggrieved, they can lobby the legislature for their review or approach the courts for redress.
ZI: You mentioned that the court petitions contributed to the delays in the printing of ballots. What in your view needs to be done in terms of legal provisions to ensure they donot cause such delays in the future?
US: We have been on record saying that the electoral law needs to be amended to provide for the time limit for the adjudication of pre-election matters. This is a proposal we made after the 2018 elections and which we continue to make even now after the 2023 harmonised elections.
ZI: Zimbabweans are currently divided over the outcome. What is your message to them?
US: The elections are over and we need to move forward and build our nation. We need to put behind the electioneering mode. As Zimbabweans, we should find each other and embrace one another for the betterment of our nation. We urge Zimbabweans to accept the results and move forward.
ZI: It should have been a difficult time for you personally, how do you deal with the insults and attacks on social media?
US: I take it in stride, it's part of the job although I hope that all writers on mainstream media, as well as social media, can take time to learn the truth and the ins and outs of our processes before denigrating them.
Moreso, the media has a responsibility to educate the public as well as shape their minds and perceptions of electoral processes. Failure to do so responsibly may result in mayhem and or the rejection of the outcome.
We all must build this nation and we can only do it through providing constructive feedback rather than working to pull each other down.
Also because I have a conviction that I am doing the right thing and following the dictates of the law.