Can SADC safeguard Zimbabwe’s election?
Last Friday, Zimbabwe’s President and ruling Zanu-PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa launched his party’s manifesto ahead of momentous general elections expected in mid-2018. The polls will be the first without Robert Mugabe since the country’s independence from Britain in 1980 after he was replaced by Mnangagwain a palace coup, last November. Mugabe’s political nemesis and veteran opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, will also not feature on the ballot paper after succumbing to colon cancer, in February.
Mnangagwa was a major part of Zimbabwe’s emergence as a poster-country for violent and disputed elections and became an international pariah during Mugabe’s reign. Known as the “Crocodile”, because for his liberation war heroics as a member of the 1960s “Crocodile Gang” and for his political cunning, Mnangagwa is now trying hard to emerge from the long shadow of his long-time mentor and secure broad-based legitimacy.
His grand strategy includes a charm offensive promising peaceful, free, credible, fair and indisputable elections.
Significantly, Zimbabwe’s new president has pledged to uphold the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections in the hope of securing a regional seal of approval. Adopted in 2004, and revised in 2014, the guidelines are an important initiative that commits regional governments to credible, democratic and peaceful elections.
They enjoin SADC member states to establish impartial, all-inclusive, competent and accountable national election management bodies (EMBs); safeguard the human rights and civil liberties of all citizens, including freedoms of movement, assembly, association and expression, and the right of all stakeholders to campaign and have access to the state media during electoral processes; prescribe election dates by law; provide adequate logistics and resources for democratic elections; ensure provision of adequate security to all parties participating in elections; encourage the participation of women, the disabled and youth in all aspects of the electoral process; and ensure the transparency and integrity of the entire electoral process by facilitating the deployment of representatives of political parties and individual candidates at polling and counting stations and by accrediting national and other observers and monitors.
The 2018 elections are therefore a litmus for SADC, particularly as the regional body’s own election monitors have found Zimbabwe to have ignored the guidelines in the past. This time around SADC sent an advance team to evaluate whether Zimbabwe’s pre-election environment is conducive for credible polls and offer advice to the country’s EMB (the SADC mission only arrived in March, however, meaning it missed an opportunity to monitor the procurement and rollout of Zimbabwe’s new Biometric Voter Registration system).
Assessing whether or not Zimbabwe’s ongoing election preparations comply with the SADC guidelines is not an easy task, not least in relation to the gap between the country’s permissive constitutional provisions and actual practice.
First, although Zimbabwe’s electoral legislation provides prominent roles for the Judicial Service Commission and Parliament in the establishment of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), Mnangagwa has the authority to appoint its head. There has been historical concern about the ZEC’s functional independence with Justice Rita Makarau, who resigned as ZEC chair last December, deemed to have been an ally of former president Mugabe - and therefore not impartial. The Zanu-PF government reportedly stuffed the ZEC secretariat with ex-military and intelligence officers loyal to the ruling party.
The onus is now on new ZEC head, Justice Priscilla Chigumba, to affirm the independence and political impartiality of the ZEC as it conducts the 2018 polls on a shoestring. Not only does the Ministry of Justice control the finances of the ZEC but Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped government budgeted only $132.2-million for it to run the 2018 polls - less than half the $274-million it had requested.
Second, Zimbabwe’s constitution permits every Zimbabwean citizen including “aliens” (Zimbabweans born of migrant parents), aged 18 or over and registered as a voter, to vote. Over 5 million Zimbabweans registered during the ZEC’s countrywide Biometric Voter Registration blitz to replace the much-maligned manual voters’ roll, which was believed to have been manipulated. However, there was concern over the inclusivity of the voter registration blitz. Some ZEC registration centres reportedly sent away people before the stipulated closing hours, thereby obstructing some eligible citizens who wanted to register. Some “aliens” were turned away as they did not have long unabridged birth certificates, after the Registrar General’s office allegedly reneged on its earlier commitment to facilitate the free and mass registration for citizens to acquire long birth certificates and identity documents in tandem with the voter registration process. This potentially disenfranchised some “alien” voters who will need to be covered under ongoing voter registration at the ZEC’s provincial and district offices.
Furthermore, while the constitution makes provision for a diaspora vote, the Electoral Act is yet to be aligned to the supreme law to allow the ZEC to administer the vote. Mnangagwa said the government was unable to capacitate the ZEC logistically to facilitate voting outside Zimbabwe, which requires setting up registration centres and polling stations in the different countries where Zimbabweans are resident; or turning embassies into polling stations. The Electoral Act restricts postal ballots to people sent outside the country on government business and their spouses, effectively disenfranchising an estimated 3 million Zimbabwean citizens living abroad. This makes it a political imperative for the government to regularly review the participation of citizens in the diaspora in national elections.
Third, the ZEC officially launched BVR with hardly any voter education around the process. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) accepted a rather late invitation from the ZEC and trained 2 000 volunteers from across the country to act as both observers and educators during the BVR rollout. This averted the danger of a chaotic process tilted towards discouraging potential voters. It is incumbent on the ZEC to continue collaboration with CSOs and FBOs in a voter education drive that capacitates and empowers all voters to foster ownership of the electoral process and the democratic political system.
Fourth, Zimbabwe’s electoral legislation prescribes that elections should be held on any date between 21 July and 21 August unless the parliament is dissolved earlier. But Mnangagwa has still not proclaimed the election date when ample time is needed for the ZEC to make adequate preparations for the election to be free, fair and credible. This includes the timeous finalisation, release and verification of hard and electronic copies of the key voters’ roll whose centrality to inclusive, free, fair, credible and transparent elections cannot be overemphasized.
Fifth, there is continued polarisation and bias of the public and private media along political party lines. Although Zimbabwe’s Electoral Act makes provision for equitable broadcasting time of contestants on state owned media, this has not always been allocated to the opposition. The state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and Zimpapers continue to churn out reports in favour of the ruling party. Furthermore, the repressive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which impinges the critical free flow of information during the electoral process, continues to exist.
Sixth, Zimbabwe’s constitution enshrines citizens’ fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression. Yet, the Public Order and Security Act, which has been used by state security agents since 2002 to arbitrarily suppress the opposition, human rights defenders, political activists and the general public is yet to be revised. The notorious law was used by Mugabe’s government to regulate these groups fundamental rights to move, gather, receive information and speak out critical aspects of exercising their right to participate in the governance of their country while giving free reign to Zanu-PF.
Seventh, some ruling Zanu-PF officials and chiefs, who received brand new cars from the government, reportedly intimidated registrants with impunity. This included the recording of serial numbers on voter registration slips under the ruse that it is possible to know who registrants will vote for on election day, and dangling food aid and agricultural inputs to villagers to entice them to register and vote for the ruling party. In the urban areas, Zanu-PF officials dished out pre-signed affidavits of proof of residence and later demanded voter registration slips to record serial numbers.
Eighth, Mnangagwa, in a break with the Mugabe era, confirmed the Commonwealth, European Union and United Nations would be invited to monitor the forthcoming polls alongside SADC and the African Union. Mnangagwa has been aggressively pushing a “Zimbabwe is open for business” rhetoric and the Commonwealth and European Union consider the credibility of the upcoming electoral process as an essential step for full re-engagement with Zimbabwe.
If implemented properly, the SADC guidelines will be a game-changer for strengthening Zimbabwe’s electoral processes and democracy building. But, going by past experience and the SADC Electoral Advisory Council’s spotty record in promoting their adequate implementation, Mnangagwa’s electoral promise will have to be sincere and the regional body will have to put in a lot of effort make the guidelines work. In addition to the daunting task of engaging Mnangagwa’s government to implement the 10 electoral reforms outlined in its Plan and Environment for a Credible Election, the main opposition alliance should closely monitor whether ZEC conducts the elections in compliance with the constitution and SADC guidelines and document any evidence of fraud or irregularities. Civil society groups and the media should continue to monitor the political environment to demand accountability and transparency during the electoral process.
Gwinyayi A. Dzinesa is a freelance peace and security researcher.