/ 20 June 2024

Embracing the diaspora vote can enfranchise Zimbabwean economic nomads

Zimbabwe Elections 39 (1)
A supporter of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu-PF, holds up an election campaign poster during a rally addressed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa. (Jekesai Njikizana/Getty Images)

Zimbabwe witnessed its national election on 23 August 2023, with President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zanu-PF clinching a victory to secure his second term in office. The presidential election was not immune to criticism of irregularities noted by regional and international observers, casting a cloud of doubt on the credibility of the election.

But a more serious matter needs urgent attention — the diaspora vote.

Diaspora voting means procedures that enable some or all electors of a country temporarily or permanently abroad to exercise their voting rights outside the country.

According to section 67(3) of the Constitution, every Zimbabwean citizen of or over 18 years of age has the right to vote in all elections. Section 67(1) of the Constitution provides that every Zimbabwean citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections. While every adult Zimbabwean is constitutionally entitled to vote, those abroad can vote through postal voting

But, according to section 72 of the Electoral Act, postal voting is limited to the person on duty as a member of a disciplined force, or as an electoral officer or on duty in the service of the government outside Zimbabwe or their spouse.

This means that emigrants can only vote by physically returning to their respective constituencies in Zimbabwe. It is reported that in Registrar General of Elections & Ors v Morgan Tsvangirai, the court stated that  “electoral authorities are not under a legal duty to provide machinery in foreign countries to record votes of Zimbabwean citizens registered as voters who live there and are unable to attend personally at polling stations in their constituencies”. 

Zimbabwe exports labour to many corners of the world, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia and South Africa. In pursuit of tertiary education and opportunities, Zimbabweans join international students in various international higher learning institutions, even going as far as China.

Zimbabweans scattered outside their home country are constitutionally entitled to vote. But for many Zimbabweans, it is impossible and impractical to go back to vote in Zimbabwe because of the cost of travelling, employment constraints and educational demands. This means most Zimbabweans are disenfranchised. This must not happen. This should not be happening. This has been happening. 

The introduction and implementation of a diaspora vote mechanism can remedy this problem. This is not unusual in the world of politics and mature democracies. For example, South Africa allows any registered voter at the age of or above 18 with a valid South African ID  to vote in national elections.

In addition, many countries such as Canada have mechanisms to ensure that citizens vote abroad. Zimbabwe obtained its independence in 1980; it is irrational to expect Zimbabwe to remain a democratic toddler. It must by now have joined its peers who have democratically matured. A diaspora vote that is credible and fair should be a pillar of the democratic, free and fair Zimbabwe. 

A reader may be tempted to denounce the importance of a diaspora vote but a slight appreciation of the statistics might change this view. Zimbabwe has more than 908,000 emigrants, with 84% of them leaving the country in search of employment and another 5% migrating for education or training.

These numbers do not include those who leave Zimbabwe by illegal means. Zimbabweans are not apathetic, but financial constraints have made it impossible for them to exercise their voting rights from their host nations. It has been alleged that denying diaspora votes Zanu-PF plan is to manipulate polls. In addition, despite increasing demands from opposition leaders and activists, the ruling party has blocked every effort to amend the laws to allow Zimbabweans living abroad to vote.

Now is the right time for Zimbabwe to amend its laws and mandate the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to implement mechanisms that enable the diaspora to vote. The fact that the right to vote is constitutionally provided should compel the legislature to amend the Electoral Act.

While the adoption of the diaspora vote has the potential to significantly tip the scales in favour of the main opposition party, Zanu-PF need not fear this development, because it too enjoys a strong base of loyal supporters abroad.

Rather than viewing the diaspora vote as a mere political subterfuge, it should be embraced as a fundamental step in upholding the constitutional principle of universal adult suffrage. Allowing citizens living abroad to participate in the democratic process aligns with the core values of the Constitution and democracy, ensuring that every voice is heard in shaping the future. 

Readers might be curious about the methods the ZEC can implement to ensure citizens living abroad can vote. It can consider in-person polling stations, embassy voting, postal voting and online voting. In-person polling stations would require establishing voting locations in areas with significant diaspora populations such as London and Johannesburg. While this approach reduces the potential for fraud, it can face logistical difficulties and potential refusal by the host nation to allow foreign elections.

Embassy voting is another option the ZEC can explore. This method is similar to in-person polling stations but is limited to the country’s embassies or consulates. While it presents fewer logistical problems, not all cities have embassies. But it does offer emigrants the opportunity to vote at the nearest embassy or consulate.

Furthermore, the existing postal voting option can be extended to include all Zimbabwean citizens living abroad, not just those in government service. This expansion will undoubtedly streamline the voting process for Zimbabweans residing overseas.

Moreover, the ZEC might consider adopting an online voting system that is legitimate, accurate and safe. In an era where technology advances rapidly, it is time for Zimbabwe to leverage these advancements and embrace online voting. This approach brings numerous benefits, including reduced organisational costs and increased voter turnout.

Additionally, online voting eliminates the need for printing ballot papers or establishing physical polling stations — voters can conveniently cast their votes from any location with an internet connection. By carefully evaluating these options, the ZEC can develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure that all Zimbabwean citizens, regardless of location, can exercise their democratic right to vote.

Tendai Mikioni is a research assistant at the iNtaka Centre for Law & Technology at the University of Cape Town  and serves as an ad hoc legal assistant for the Zamani Research Group.