/ 22 August 2023

What makes an election free and fair elections

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. Photo: Jekesai Njikizana/Getty Images

Free and fair elections are the essence of representative democracy. They are a necessary, though not sufficient, component of democratic governance. They allow the people to choose their representative and leaders and hold them accountable. When elections are not free and fair, the people’s will is not respected and the government as a result is not legitimate. 

Free and fair elections help promote peace and stability and they attract investment, which, if well directed and managed, should lead to development. 

There is always controversy whether a particular election has been free and fair. Consequently, Zimbabwe has historically been paralysed by such disagreement, to the detriment of the people of Zimbabwe and the nearly irreparable damage to its development trajectory.  

In a free and fair election: 

  • All eligible citizens have the right to vote;
  • Every vote has equal weight;
  • The ballot is secret so voters can cast their ballots without fear of reprisal;
  • The electoral management body is independent;
  • The media is free, independent and competent so that voters have accurate, objective information about the candidates and the issues;
  • Freedom of association is protected and guaranteed; candidates and voters are free to gather and campaign and canvas for their preferred candidates; and
  • There is freedom of speech: voters can express their political views without fear of reprisal as long as they do not break the law.

No election is perfect, but an election can be considered free and fair if it meets most of these criteria.

There should be no:

  • Voter suppression: preventing eligible voters from casting their ballots by, for example, gerrymandering and intimidation;
  • Electoral fraud; the illegal interference in the electoral process, including voter impersonation, ballot stuffing and vote buying;
  • Media bias, where one candidate or party is favoured over another, which prevents voters from getting accurate information; and
  • Corruption, the misuse of public office for private gain and includes bribery, extortion and nepotism.

Credibility of elections has been added as essential to the legitimacy of elections, bringing in an additional nuance to the criteria, including:

  • Inclusiveness: all eligible voters have the opportunity to participate in the election, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, religion or social status;
  • Transparency: the election process is open to public scrutiny, and all procedures are clear and well-documented;
  • Accountability: there are mechanisms in place to hold election officials accountable for any irregularities or misconduct;
  • Competitiveness: there is a genuine contest between different political parties or candidates and, as in any good competition, the outcome of the election is uncertain; and
  • Rule of law: the election process is conducted in accordance with the law, and there is no interference from the government or other powerful interests.

Many of the criteria for free, fair and credible elections can be assessed and adjudged long before the elections. Assessments and verifications should be done throughout the electoral cycle to ensure that disputes do not arise when there is no time to resolve them. Only those processes involving the actual management of the voting and counting need to be assessed during and after the actual vote. 

Assessments that would lead to an accurate picture of how ready the system is to hold a free and fair election involve a number of steps, which many organisations such as the United Nations have advised on and support.

Assessing electoral readiness is the process of evaluating the capacity of a country to conduct free, fair, and credible elections. It takes into account a variety of factors, including:

  • The legal framework for elections;
  • The independence of the electoral management body;
  • The registration of voters;
  • The security of the election process;
  • The media environment;
  • The level of public participation; and
  • The presence of any potential threats to the integrity of the election

All these should and can be ascertained way before the election itself. It is the responsibility of stakeholders to ensure this.

If irregularities are alleged they need to be investigated. In Zimbabwe the Constitution and the law lay down the mechanism and timing for doing this. It is as irresponsible and undemocratic to ignore the evidence of electoral malfeasance as it is to claim electoral irregularities without provable evidence. Both undermine democracy, increase tension and polarisation and can lead to civil strife. If an aggrieved party follows the laid down procedures, it is duty bound to accept the outcome of such a procedure, not only when it rules in its favour, but even against. That is how institutions are strengthened and legitimised.

The heroes of the upcoming Zimbabwean election are those who run in the election with their eyes open and will accept the results. If they do not, it should be because they have evidence of the elections not having been free and fair, and are prepared to challenge the results through the mechanisms provided for, and be prepared to accept the determinations of the system, after exhausting all its levels if necessary. Continuing to claim victory and irregularities after the legitimate institutions have made their determinations is destructive of democracy, the institutions and the country, much like Donald Trump has undermined democracy in the United States of America.

Joseph Mugore is an international development professional who advises governments and their development partners on development. He is the principal associate at Transformation for Development Associates LLC.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.