/ 2 August 2023

Will SADC once again declare Zimbabwe’s elections free and fair?

Zimbabwe Politics Chamisa Campaign
Supporters gathered to listen to Zimbabwe main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change address outside Rudhaka Stadium in Marondera where the party was banned from hosting an election campaign rally in the stadium, March 12 2022. - Armed anti-riot police on Saturday blocked an opposition rally where thousands had gathered for an address by party leader Nelson Chamisa in Marondera 70km east of Harare. Thousands of Citizens Coalition for Change supporters defied and protested a court order to ban the rally with party leader Chamisa accusing the state of clamping down on its campaign. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

After the 2013 election in Zimbabwe, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM) declared

“There were so many other elements that when put together elevated the election to a credible status; the free election environment, the peaceful environment in which the election took place, unhindered and non-intimidation to candidates and votes, free expression and campaigns, transparency and free voting constitutes the credibility under the prevailing circumstances … Therefore, this election was generally credible … SEOM congratulates ZEC [Zimbabwe Electoral Commission] and the people of Zimbabwe for holding a free, peaceful and generally credible harmonised elections of July 2013 in which the will of the people was expressed.” 

Similarly, after the 2018 election, the electoral observation mission declared:   

“In conclusion, the harmonised elections of 30th July, 2018, represent a political watershed in Zimbabwe’s history as they may open a new chapter leading towards socio-economic recovery and consolidation of democracy.”

Ever wondered how the electoral observation mission decides the merits of an election? What criteria are used? This article unpacks the process leading up to the SADC observation mission pronouncing on an election, considering the upcoming 23 August 2023 election in Zimbabwe.

In April this year, the SADC Electoral Advisory Council (SEAC) carried out a pre-election goodwill assessment mission to Zimbabwe. As is tradition, the objective was to assess whether the political and security environment in the country was conducive for the holding of elections based on the following conditions:

  • Conformity with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021). 
  • Whether the legal framework governing the 2023 general elections is in place.
  • Whether the ZEC is prepared to conduct democratic elections.

It is the custom for the advisory council mission to have discussions with a wide range of stakeholders in a SADC member state that is planning to hold an election. These meetings are vital in assisting the advisory council to appreciate the national context to better inform the chairperson of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation on whether to deploy an electoral observation mission during an election cycle. 

Assessment processes 

At the end of any election cycle, the electoral observation mission will compile a report based on their observations and discussions with stakeholders. Here is a brief overview of the steps involved in declaring an election free, fair, transparent, credible and peaceful. 

Once a goodwill mission is concluded, a report is compiled on the mission’s findings. These findings, according to paragraph 7.1.1 (b) of the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021), are required to:

Report to the Ministerial Committee of the Organ on whether the political environment is conducive to the holding of free, fair, transparent, credible and peaceful elections in conformity with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

To meet the above requirement, the advisory council should carry out a comprehensive assessment focusing on the indicators pointing to an environment conducive to the holding of free, fair, transparent, credible and peaceful elections. 

In an ideal setting, this assessment should be objective, as SADC does apply the principle and practice of electoral credibility based on evidence-based observation of the following key considerations. Two main concepts have been applied: free elections and fair elections 

Additional concepts are also considered, which are essentially in support of the first two: credible elections and peaceful elections. 

The final concept considered is transparent elections. 

According to SADC, a total of 26 indicators are applied consistently to assess the implementation of these five concepts of assessing the conduct of an election. 

In addition, SADC observers must also consider the following principles to strengthen their final mission assessment: 

Free elections. This questions whether fundamental human rights and freedoms have been adhered to during the electoral process. This is a measurable concept with seven specific indicators: 

  1. Freedom of speech and expression of electoral stakeholders.
  2. Freedom of assembly and association. 
  3. Freedom of access to information. 
  4. The right to transmit and receive political messages by citizens. 
  5. Principles of equal and universal adult suffrage.
  6. Right of voters to vote in secrecy. 
  7. Right to register complaints without undue restrictions or repercussions. 

Fair elections: There are six indicators focusing on whether elections are: 

  1. Conducted in conformity with established rules and regulations.
  2. Managed by an impartial, non-partisan, professional and competent electoral management body.
  3. Held in an atmosphere of respect for the rule of law. 
  4. Guaranteed rights of protection for citizens through the electoral law and the constitution and reasonable opportunities for voters to transmit and receive voter information. 
  5. Defined by equitable access to financial and material resources for all political parties and independent candidates in accordance with national laws. 
  6. Where no violence, intimidation or discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, religious or other considerations specified in the SADC Principles & Guidelines. 

Credible elections: There are two indicators: 

  1. The election has considerable support and confidence of citizens, international or regional community. 
  2. Leading to mutually agreeable results from competing entities participating in the election. 

Peaceful elections: The following seven indicators have been applied to assess whether the electoral process is: 

  1. Punctuated by calm. 
  2. Undisturbed and untroubled by violence or intimidation. 
  3. Conflict-free.
  4. Atmosphere where all citizens are free and unhindered to express their right to vote.
  5. Citizens are able to offer themselves for election without intimidation.
  6. Citizens communicate their electoral choices freely.
  7. Enjoy freedom of assembly and association. 

Transparent elections: The following four indicators determine if an election is conducted in: 

  1. An open 
  2. Clear
  3. Visible 
  4. Unhindered manner. 

We know the electoral observation mission will announce their findings on Zimbabwe’s elections after they have carefully considered the above indicators in their assessment of the election period. 

In previous elections, the results were controversial and challenged. Having a better understanding of how the election classification process works, analysts and aggrieved stakeholders should hold SADC accountable, based on SADC’s own principles supported with any empirical evidence that may be contrary to the election being declared free, fair, transparent, credible and peaceful. Good Governance Africa has placed these criteria of electoral observation mission in the public domain with the hope of empowering citizens to best hold SADC accountable if conditions spelled out are not met. 

Dr Craig Moffat is at Good Governance Africa, a research and advocacy nonprofit organisation with centres around Africa