Zimbabwe needs wide reforms to have credible elections. But it may be too late
Zimbabwe’s Constitution requires it to hold elections by July 2018. It seems unlikely that the country’s political system will be reformed in time to ensure the election is free and fair. The opposition will therefore be at a disadvantage again. It seems to have abandoned its calls for reform and is focusing on building coalitions.
In South Africa and Namibia, former liberation movements have maintained their dominance through credible elections. The polls have met legal and internationally accepted criteria. But in Zimbabwe, the ruling ZANU PF has dominated by abusing the country’s political and electoral systems. Elections have often been deadly for the opposition there.
Zimbabwe’s election history
ZANU PF, which has been in power since independence in 1980, has applied any means necessary to hold on to this position. Elections or no elections, the party is ready to defend its power.
The party manipulated the electoral process in 2000, 2002, 2008 and 2013.
It lost elections to the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in March 2008 but refused to concede defeat. Contrary to earlier practice when presidential, parliamentary and local government elections were conducted separately, the harmonised elections combined all the elections and the ones in 2008 were the first. This led to a bloody presidential run-off in June 2008. The incumbent ZANU PF president claimed to have won again.
A coalition government was formed in 2009 and the parties negotiated a new Constitution, which was approved in 2013. ZANU PF won the 2013 elections.
Although there was no evidence of political violence in 2013, forms of electoral chicanery were evident, compromising the legitimacy of the results.
Calls for electoral reform
After its 2013 “defeat”, the MDC resolved not to contest any elections until the system was fair.
Together with other (smaller) opposition parties, it boycotted all by-elections for both the local government and the legislature from 2013.
These parties and certain civil society organisations gathered under the umbrella of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA). The group aimed to address problems that compromise the credibility of elections in Zimbabwe.
Why Zimbabwe needs electoral reform
There are four main reasons why electoral institutions in Zimbabwe are in urgent need of reform.
- Municipal law should align with conventions such as the African Charter on Democracy and Governance.
- The Electoral Act should align with the new Constitution.
- The consistently flawed electoral process has created a crisis of legitimacy.
- Manipulation of the electoral process prevents a transfer of power in Zimbabwe.
Who must reform
The National Electoral Reform Agenda (ZEC) should be the primary target for reform. It has no credibility and has long been considered independent on paper only.
Other targets for reform include:
- The judiciary. Most judges are perceived as sympathetic to the ruling party’s interests because they are part of its patronage network
- The security sector. The military, intelligence and police are widely considered partisan
- The bureaucracy, especially senior appointments. These are subject to manipulation by the ruling party
- Biased state media
- Regulations and laws that allow citizens to take part freely in the electoral process such as the Public Order and Security Act
In line with the new constitution of 2013, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) made some changes. Some were voluntary and others were required by the new Constitution.
Voluntary reforms are mostly administrative. For example, voter registration is now based on polling stations and on biometric information.
Mandatory or legal reforms include the creation of a new voters’ roll, keeping it secure, giving it to candidates in time and improving voter education.
The (ZEC) has also been working more closely with political parties, to stimulate confidence in the electoral process.
These specific achievements are important. But they are probably not enough. They fall short of NERA’s calls. And elections are still threatened by political violence, abuse of state resources by the ruling party and vote buying.
The ZEC’s reforms must take place within the framework of other systemic changes outlined above.
Constraints and opportunities
ZANU PF has managed to delay the debate on electoral reforms and the reform of the electoral act. There will not be enough time to make the changes before the 2018 elections.
The opposition’s “Grand Coalition” is not likely to challenge ZANU PF successfully.
That party sees itself as having brought democracy to Zimbabwe. It will not reform itself out of power. Individuals in government and the security apparatus are loyal to the ruling party. This thin line between the party and state has a direct bearing on the political culture of militarisation of government business, fear and repression. In practice, no distinction exists between government and ZANU PF officials especially in the security sector. The party and state are heavily conflated.
The Ministry of Justice controls the finances of the Election Management Body (EMB). The government can get the EMB to waste time so that reforms will not threaten the stranglehold of ZANU PF in the 2018 elections.
Unless civil society sustains its pressure for reform and succeeds, the 2018 elections will only serve to legitimise continued authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe.