WHILE it appears a fait accompli that Zimbabwe will hold local government, presidential and legislative elections next year, the question is
whether or not it will be feasible for the electorate to elect five public officers in one day.
The electorate has to elect a president, a member of the House of Assembly, senator, mayor and councillor at one time.
The ruling Zanu PF and both formations of the MDC have agreed during the South African President Thabo Mbeki-mediated talks that the elections be held concurrently.
Zanu PF said it would be cost-effective to have the polls in one day, while the MDC reportedly argued it did not want separate elections to avoid what happened in 2000 when the government lost the constitutional referendum.
After the loss in February, the government unleashed an orgy of violence against the opposition ahead of the parliamentary polls, which the MDC narrowly lost to Zanu PF.
However, fears abound that electing the five public officers in one swoop may prove to be taxing to the electorate and may result in thousands of voters failing to cast their ballots like what happened in Harare and Chitungwiza in March 2002.
In 2002, Harare had tripartite elections for the president, mayor and councillor, while Chitungwiza had a bipartite poll for the head of state and mayor on March 9 and 10.
The MDC had to petition the High Court to extend voting by another day citing the slow processing of voters and the application was granted by Justice Ben Hlatshwayo.
The opposition had argued, among other things, that polling stations were reduced in Harare and Chitungwiza by an average of 30% from those used in the watershed parliamentary polls of 2000.
The 2002 scenario, critics argued, could replicate itself next year, not only in Harare and Chitungwiza, but throughout the country.
Political scientist Michael Mhike is of the opinion that next year’s polls will be chaotic and suggested that the elections be separated.
“What it means is that thousands of people will not be able to cast their votes,” Mhike said. “The time spent in casting five ballots will be long and would discourage voters. We need separate elections.”
Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (Zesn) national director, Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, said the feasibility of the polls would largely depend on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)’s planning.
“It (feasibility) depends on the election management body if they do their logistics properly, especially on ballot boxes and papers like what happened in Sierra Leone during presidential and parliamentary polls in August 2007,” said Chipfunde-Vava.
“It went on well (in Sierra Leone), but note it had problems in Zambia where they did a tripartite one. It needs proper voter information to the electorate too.”
She said simultaneous elections need massive publicity and voter education.
“This should be done to avoid voters finding themselves in the wrong constituencies, say one could be in the correct senatorial constituency, but wrong parliamentary constituency,” added Chipfunde-Vava.
The Zesn national director suggested that if the elections were to be successful, ZEC should put in place many polling stations in constituencies.
Ace Electoral Knowledge Network of South Africa (Ace) said if national legislative elections were held at the same time across the country, holding presidential or local elections on that day was not likely to increase the burden significantly of observing, monitoring or protecting the actual polling stations or counting centres.
“If possible security concerns can be addressed successfully, there are great resource savings to be made by holding the elections simultaneously — as the recruitment, training and deployment of polling place staff can be done for all types of elections at the same time and voters lists, ballots and other materials can be delivered once instead of at separate occasions,” Ace said.
However, Ace added, despite the overall logistical and cost savings, the burden of having to pull all the resources together at the same time may be too big for the country to handle.
“The decision to hold elections simultaneously may affect the results as campaign messages may be harder to get across when many elections are competing for attention at the same time,” the network said.
“One last thing to consider is also how the simultaneous elections impact on the voters’ understanding of the various elections in terms of the candidates and the actual voting process.”
If — as was the case in the recent elections in Scotland — different electoral systems were used with different types of ballots in the various elections, holding the polls simultaneously puts a large burden on voter education programmes.
One of the worries of having simultaneous polls, some critics argued, would be that many voters would not cast their ballots as polling stations’ capacity to handle the electorate would be far too low.
Electoral Institute of Southern Africa senior advisor Liona Tip said there were no statistics regarding an “acceptable or agreed-upon time” for voters to be processed as it would depend on a range of factors, including the levels of formal literacy and the length of queues.
Tip argued that in South Africa, the Independent Electoral Commission gave an average of 15 to 25 minutes from the time the voter arrives at the station (that is outside the station) until the voter leaves the station. This includes waiting and voting time.
“However, again this varies depending on the time of the day and the length of the queue,” Tip added. “Electoral administration authorities tend to work on about 600 voters per station to ensure a smooth process. Actual voting time for a single ballot can be between three and five minutes, but can be longer if the voter requires assistance.”
In Lesotho’s polls this year, the elections were estimated at an average of three to five minutes, while in the Democratic Republic of the Congo elections last year it was put at between seven and 10 minutes.
What this implies is that Zimbabwe needs to have a lot of polling stations if next year’s simultaneous polls are to be successful.
ZEC this week said it was still to work out the logistics for next year’s polls.