Rights groups mull protests over electoral law changes

Gift Phiri

CIVIL rights groups plan to stage a protest in Harare against proposed amendments to the Electoral Act which would deny many Zimbabweans the right to vote in the forthcoming general election.
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NGOs, civic organisations and human rights bodies believe the draconian amendments proposed by President Robert Mugabe’s government will curtail the voting rights of poor urban dwellers – who are the opposition party’s main supporters – in next year’s parliamentary election due to be held in March.


“The demonstration will show the revulsion of the people of Zimbabwe for what we see as a great fraud,” said Douglas Mwonzora, spokesman for the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a broad-based coalition of civic, religious and opposition groups.


Under proposals contained in the Electoral Amendment Bill to be tabled in parliament soon, urban dwellers will be required to produce proof of residence. Without the proof, expected to come in the form of a receipt or demand for payment rates in terms of the Urban Councils Act, they would have to produce a sworn statement from their employer confirming their place of residence or bring documents such as bank statements or hospital bills.


In rural areas, voters would be required to bring sworn oral or written statements from their chiefs, who are now part and parcel of Zanu PF’s electoral machinery.


Section 116A of the Bill criminalises placing bills, placards, circulars or any other document and writing or painting with the object of supporting or opposing any political party, political cause or candidate. The offence carries a maximum jail term of six months.


According to an article by the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) published on Tuesday, the amendments would designate the under-funded Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) as the only body to conduct civic education and would ban foreign funding unless directed to the ESC. Civil society organisations would therefore be prohibited from providing civic education.


EISA also noted that the amendments would mean that only civil servants would be permitted to observe the elections. But after more than two decades of Zanu PF rule, the civil service is widely regarded as a partisan institution. The NCA and its supporters plan to gather outside parliament on the day the Bill is supposed to be tabled.


“This motion must not be entertained at all,” Mwonzora said. The amendments to the Act stipulate that voters need to provide title deeds, certificates of occupation or lodgers’ cards as proof of residence before they can register to vote. But many city dwellers do not own properties and live in illegal, makeshift structures in the city’s working class suburbs.

Despite promises over the years since Independence, the Zanu PF government has not been able to provide accommodation and most major cities in the country have long lists of people in need of housing.


Village heads and traditional leaders will have to vouch for voters who live in rural areas. Reginald Matchaba-Hove, chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn), a civic organisation, told the Zimbabwe Independent that the new regulations were a worrying development.


“We are really worried about these changes and measures which don’t seem to abide by the constitution,” he said. Zesn also questioned the government’s decision to introduce the new regulations ahead of parliamentary elections.


“We should always be aware that flawed electoral processes are often a source of conflict,” warned Matchaba-Hove.

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