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ZEC unfit to run free, fair elections - Study

by Staff reporter
01 Aug 2023 at 21:13hrs | Views
A NEW study on Zimbabwe's electoral politics, processes and institutions has found that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) is deeply distrusted by voters, hence cannot be trusted to preside over free, fair, transparent, credible and legitimate elections.

The new study titled Electoral Politics in Zimbabwe, Volume I: The 2023 Election and Beyond, edited by local academics Esther Mavengano and Sophia Chirongoma, says Zec is captured, compromised and unfit to hold free and fair elections.

Says the study: "The most important factor in ensuring credible elections in Zimbabwe is by promoting a transparent Independent Commission.

"There is no way elections can be free and fair, while the commission is accused of being aligned with the ruling party, State President and Constitutional Court.

"Zimbabwe needs an independent electoral commission that is ready to uphold the fundamental principles of democracy and rule of law. Zec should be independent from the Government of Zimbabwe, political parties or individuals or groups interested in election results."

As a result of Zec's partisan role, dysfunctionality and incompetence, the 23 August general elections are likely to be disputed again.

Elections in Zimbabwe have since 2000 been disputed due to Zec's professional and operational failures, irregularities, coercion, violence and manipulation.

The study says: "The 2023 Zimbabwean elections could witness another sad electoral history of having disputed elections and accusation of rigging unless Zec presents transparency in its handling of the elections to the satisfaction of the electorate.

"The Government of Zimbabwe should ensure Zec is allocated adequate funding to initiate the voter registration and election preparations in time.

"The commission should have financial independence after the annual budget is announced so as to promote effectiveness of its performance and independence.

"The prevailing economic and political environment in Zimbabwe po ints to a very volatile election in 2023 if the government does not put a conducive environment in place."
The research also says there is a need for professional and impartial resolution of electoral disputes by the judiciary.

"In addition, the government and the judiciary should remain independent to harmonise jurisdictions arising from elections disputes."

The study recommends that political parties and civil society continuously deploy agents to be trained by Zec to support its efforts and advance transparency.

Further, there should be research on the role of political actors in analysing the independence of Zec, it says.

"International organisations such as the European Union should also continue to support electoral processes so as to enhance and promote transparency in elections. Local and international observers should continue monitoring the electoral environment to boost citizens' confidence in the electoral process."

The study brings more insight into what voters think about Zec.

"The research findings presented that Zec is responsible for conducting free, fair and transparent elections. All the participants acknowledged that it is the responsibility of Zec to conduct free and fair elections. "However, some of the participants cited that the commission is failing to generate uncontested election results giving reference to the case of Chamisa v. Mnangagwa constitutional petition after the 2018 elections," the study says.

It goes on: "Respondent 2 said that ‘the Zimbabwean elections, since the inception of Zec in 2004 have been contested for their credibility'. All the participants expressed that Zec is not really performing its duty when there are always issues on the credibility of election results and the voters' register.

"The research findings also revealed that Zec is responsible for designing, printing and distributing ballot papers to polling centres.

"However, due to hard copies, the visually impaired people fail to have equal access to the resource materials, therefore failing to cater to the needs of some disadvantaged members of the community."

Further, the study, says: "Respondent 14 expressed concern over the provision of braille material, an issue that has long been petitioned before the Commission to address. The participants further expressed that Zimbabwe has 16 official languages, and as such should be the case on voter education information dissemination toward promoting principles of democracy. During the interview discussions, issues arose pertaining to the financial capability of the commission to conduct voter education and print materials in diverse languages in all mass media."

The research also focuses on Zec's other role and activities.

"Participants acknowledged the role of Zec in promoting voter education on social media and press. The study found out that Zec made use of media such as newspapers, radio and internet in voter education. Respondent 12 expressed that, ‘radio has the potential of wide coverage, however, we must not forget fellow citizens who are deaf.' The study presents that there is no adequate decentralisation of vital information such as voter registration and voting to disabled people such as those with hearing impairment."

The research findings also revealed that Zec should really strengthen its voter registration process. Most of the participants expressed concern that despite Zimbabwe having elections since 1980, there are citizens who do not even know the requirements needed to register to vote.

"The crucial question to ask is, are those people even aware of the biometric voter registration system?" it says.

"During the interview discussions, only one participant expressed that she was not aware that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is responsible for maintaining the biometric voters' register. The respondent expressed that ‘I do not even know that Zec is responsible for voter registration…..what is BVR………what is the difference between Zec and the Government of Zimbabwe?"

The research also found out voter education ought to be taken seriously in order to eradicate confusion and misunderstandings from the citizens concerning the electoral commission and the government.

An interesting finding was that most of the participants were aware of the Biometric Voter Registration.

The research findings also revealed that Zec is responsible for promoting digital technology in elections.

Digital technology is also important in the conduct of elections to ensure credibility and transparency. According to Respondent 1, the manual vote register has been used by the Zimbabwe government since 1980 elections except recently in the 2018 elections when biometric voter registration was adopted.

The respondent further indicated that the challenges of having an updated voters' register in past elections, including the 2013 elections, led to the outcry for a biometric voter registration system.

"Respondent 3 expressed that manual voter registration used in previous elections was a slow process, associated with long queues at the Registrar-General. By removing the deceased voters from the voters' list and adding new registrants, the Registrar-General was required to update the voters' list, which was not always the case," the study says.

"The Zimbabwe Electoral Act Chapter 2:13 has the mandate for registering, transferring and removals of the dead from the voters' roll. Most of the participants further highlighted that during the 2013 elections, there were accusations of electors' slips being used to vote whose foundation could not be discovered.

"The research findings implied that the participants praised Zec as most of the participants acknowledged that the manual voter registration process acted as a major barrier to voter turnout leading to an inaccurate voters' register."

The study found that despite technology in the voters' registration process, manual paper registrations were not totally scratched off from the process.

"Respondent 5 highlighted that besides the biometric voters' registration system, Zec also employed a registration and data verification process on paperwork which was done manually.

"However, Respondent 6 indicated that: Voter registration exercise remains a crucial and indispensable process in the electoral cycle in Zimbabwe because in most countries, including  Zimbabwe itself, only those who are registered to vote ultimately participate on the Election Day."

The principles of transparency and accountability could be ensured by a system of biometric voter registration.

The study also found out that the manual voters' register was being manipulated by the late former president Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF.

The participants expressed that Zanu-PF has been controlling the manual vote register to its benefit so that the party wins in all the elections. Respondent seven argued that the manual voters' roll contained several ghost voters who were not removed from the voters' list. The participant further highlighted that Zanu-PF controlled the vote register so that it can pave way for multiple voting.

"Another interesting finding was that the voter registration process in the urban areas was not as strict as it was in the rural areas. The participants expressed that at times the Zec registration teams would either open late or close too early.

"Revealing the foe side of Zec, Respondent 11 expressed that at one point, Zec could not release the manual voters' roll when it was being asked for it.

"The participants' argument was based on the fact that in the case of Dabengwa vs. chairperson of Zec and two  others, the voters' roll was not accessible. Dabengwa had asked for the electronic voters' roll in 2012, unfortunately Zec failed to cooperate. The participant further stated that the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights even asked for the voters' roll before voter registration commenced and the voters' register could not be accessed upon request as it was not up to date.

"Most of the study participants also noted that the manual vote register was not best fit for Zimbabwe elections. When asked if the Biometric technology has made a difference in the 2018 election results, most of the respondents were of the view that the biometric devices improved the credibility of elections as the biometric machines reduced multiple voting. Respondent 10 said that the biometric voter registration system is also capable of promoting peaceful and credible elections in the forthcoming 2023 harmonised elections.

"However, another participant expressed that while both domestic and international observers praised the 2018 elections as free and fair, there were several problems and obstacles that called into doubt the legitimacy and integrity of the results.

"A post-election audit conducted by several parties uncovered evidence of irregularities, technological failures and election officials' willful cooperation in the overall conduct of the elections."

Some of the study participants also argued that neither the regulatory nor the administrative framework for electoral management body were able to ensure genuine elections, even with the presence of the biometric voter registration.

All the participants expressed that it is the sole responsibility of Zec to handle election results.

"Respondent one said that perhaps the greatest failure of Zec in the 2018 elections is the manner in which the Commission handled the whole aspect of the 2018 results and the Chamisa vs. Mnangagwa Constitutional Court petition.

"The participant further indicated that from counting, tabulation, declaration and transmission of results, manifest failures were noted, electoral violence and there is a lot of uncertainties in the 2023 presidential elections."

The respondent also said that after the 2018 elections, there were a lot of discussions over elections from tallying, transmitting and publishing results, and petitions were brought contesting the process and methodology adopted by Zec in the results annunciation.

Mchomvu (2011) asserts that electoral violence is often triggered by the losing party, which usually claims that they lost the elections unfairly.

Nevertheless, in the case of Zimbabwe's 2018 elections, from the interviews conducted, the participants indicated that the judiciary did not receive much compliment in its work to resolve electoral disputes, with allegations of favouring the ruling party.

It adds: "Me cost of the participants indicated that Zec's delivery of the results on election day failed miserably, among other technological issues that did not come as a surprise to quite several Zimbabweans since Zimbabwe's elections have always been accused of fraud. Such an environment demotivates electoral participation with specific reference to young people and women."

During the interview discussions, respondent four shared the following: Zec failed to adhere to the codes of conduct of the Electoral Act  and the Electoral Code of Conduct.

"When in 2008, government announced election results instead of the Commission itself. Respondent 6 blamed electoral violence on Zec for failing to handle electoral conflicts and violence.

"All the participants expressed their concern with time taken by Zec in counting election votes. As such, political violence occurred after the 2018 elections, due to the electoral commission's delay in releasing election results. This resulted in the shooting of civilians by suspected security forces.

 "Respondent six further critiqued the fact that Zec takes a lot of time in counting ballot papers, and he suggested that such a status quo calls for digital technology to allow voting online. Hence, the study uncovered that Zimbabwe has always been in a crisis of tallying, transmission and declarations of election results."

The research findings reveal that Zec relies on temporary workers, especially teachers, to provide operational voter registration support during electoral activities.

"Respondent expressed that adequate training and preparedness is therefore indispensable to the efficient electoral administration. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act 14(3) states that, ‘The commission is free to nominate anyone to help it with voter education.'
The Act further stipulates that such person to conduct voter education must be a permanent resident of the country.

The commission may delegate the voter education task when it so deems
fit. Most of the participants acknowledged that Zec tried its best in training the staff and for cascading the training in the constituencies and polling stations.

"Respondent twelve indicated that the question of the effectiveness and efficiency of the trainings, however, could not be ascertained in view of the numerous errors discovered in elections and the significant amount of spoilt ballot papers."

According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (2018), voter illiteracy is caused mainly by the electiral commission's restricted, administrative, under-resourced and undemocratic voter education system, which has fundamental problems.

"Respondent 15 felt that electoral trainings are not given enough period and Zec staff are influenced by political parties and candidates. Such a scenario limits effective and efficient role of the commission," the study adds.

During the interview discussions, respondent 10 indicated that Zec lacked objectivity toward promoting democracy through its management of elections in 2013 and 2018.

"Respondent 10 further highlighted that Zec was ineffective in promoting free, and transparent elections in the 2018 elections though the biometric voter registration system was used."

Respondent eight concurred with respondent 10, saying: "Nothing new is ever going to come out of Zec in the 2023 elections as long as it continues to be accused of being politically aligned with the ruling party."

During the interview discussions, respondent nine expressed Zec is not communicative to citizens because in the 2022 by-elections, some of the names of voters were moved to new wards without even informing the affected voters.

The participants further expressed that the intention was only to frustrate citizens not to vote.
The research findings imply that the commission is failing to keep the citizens informed on the place of voting, hence the legitimacy of the election process becomes questionable.

Respondent seven contended that Zec must operate with complete autonomy and that electoral law must explicitly provide Zec exclusive authority and responsibility for accrediting election observers.

"The respondent indicated that, ‘to be honest, Zec  is not independent to the Government of Zimbabwe.' Participants also stated that Zec's independence and post would ultimately increase trust in Zec and the vital work of managing the elections. Respondent six questioned the Electoral Act's provision granting the minister of Justice Legal and Parliamentary Affairs authority to enact Zec guidelines.

"Respondent six indicated that in the run-up of both the 2013 elections and 2018 elections, Zec clearly developed cracks and divisions that compromised its autonomy and objectivity."

In another interview, respondent four stated that Zec is manipulated by members of the security forces. The participant indicated that the commission must not depend on the government to fulfill its responsibilities.

The participant expressed her point in the form of the following question: "Can Zec get the trust from the Zimbabwe citizens in bringing free and fair in 2023 elections when security forces are on Zec's neck?"

In another interview, the respondent stated that as long as the state President has the responsibility of announcing the election date, then Zec will never be an independent commission. Respondent three proposed that the election date itself must be set by the commission and not the President.

All the study participants concurred that Zec should provide its election roadmap together with election dates rather than wait for the President to proclaim them.

"Additionally, the participant questioned the appointment of a former Zimbabwe National Army member, Utloile Silaigwana, to lead Zec in the 2018 elections. The study noted that the appointment of the former military personnel limited the credibility of Zec and led to suspicion of election rigging," the study says.

"Respondent eight put this point across as follows: how can one expect credible elections when Silaigwana is appointed as the Chief Elections Officer?…"

However, another participant expressed that at times the appointment is based on qualifications and merit without intentions of manipulation. Most of the participants indicated that the probability that Zec is going to manage the 2023 elections well is 50:50.

The possibility of violence and results contestations in the forthcoming elections therefore presents further justification to reforming election management and the independence of Zec.

With such an eye-opening view and political state, is it even impossible for Zimbabwe to hold free and fair elections?

The researchers noted that the independence of the commission is the only way to guarantee free and fair elections.

The study's key finding was that there was a slight or no separation of electoral governance, electoral cycle and election management in Zimbabwe's 2013 and 2018 elections.

"Most of the participants were unanimous that Zimbabwe's elections were treated as an event rather than a process. This was substantiated by the fact that the electoral design and management did not recognise the link between the electoral cycle, administration and governance.

"Respondent two indicated Zimbabwe appears to view elections as a one-time event that does not require thorough institutional development or planning because the same events of violence happened in 2013 and in 2018.

"The participant further expressed that unfortunately in the post-2018 elections, a lot of violence occurred particularly in Harare city where lives were lost. Such a political environment is not expected in a democratic state where elections must be held in a free and peaceful manner and their outcomes respected by all," it says.

The research sought to evaluate the efficacy of Zec. Semi-structured interviews were used in the study's qualitative methodology to ascertain the targeted respondents' perspectives.

"Several important lessons were generated from the study that will contribute meaningfully to the 2023 elections and beyond, voter registration and democratic consolidation in Zimbabwe and strengthening of the electoral process," it says.

"The research study found out, notwithstanding the fact that Zec dominates election administration in Zimbabwe, the government also has a significant impact on the electoral process and election administration with its actions. It is imperative to take into account Zec's need for strengthening and reform, as well as the role performed by the Government of Zimbabwe, political parties and media on election administration.

"For instance, credible election administration depends on the behaviour of political parties in the electoral process, the role of voters exercising their sovereign right to register and vote, and the judiciary's settlement of any rising electoral disputes.

"The study concluded that the Zimbabwean elections are associated with poor election management and election violence. As the participants indicated in the study, electoral violence in Zimbabwe is caused by the disputed election results. If left unresolved (election management), the potential for electoral violence remains high before the 2023 elections and beyond.

"While the 2018 elections saw notable progress in the legislation and the way the elections were conducted, thanks to the introduction of the biometric voter registration system, the shortcomings noted, if not addressed, would make the 2023 elections extremely difficult to execute.

"The findings show that there have been issues with the entire electoral cycle, including the creation of laws, Zec's independence and autonomy, the process for registering voters, transmitting election results and resolving electoral disputes.

"As a result, it has been determined that Zec, in its current form, cannot be trusted to deliver an electoral procedure that is credible in the 2023 elections."

Source - newshawks