By Ellen Kandororo-Dingani
THE strength of any democracy depends on citizen participation in issues of governance. In a democracy, governance and attendant issues are th
e people’s responsibility. Voters have a duty to hold their leaders accountable primarily as citizens and moreso as taxpayers. Therefore, failing to vote is tantamount to an abdication of one’s democratic right and responisbility.
The recent rural district council elections — including the Kadoma mayoral poll where a paltry 8 000 people voted out of 42 000 registered voters — were characterised by monumental voter apathy. This brought into sharp focus the critical issue of voter apathy in our electoral politics.
In order to appreciate the importance of voting, the electorate must know the critical issues and understand how the governance system works. Citizens have to be able to work together to be effective politically; they have to be involved enough to know the importance of their vote and to convince others to do the same.
It is an old democratic tenet that the voting habit is learnt through civic involvement. This raises the difficult issue of how to convince people to spend time getting involved in isues concerning their local community if they can’t even take part in the less burdensome activity of voting.
The answer is to ensure that involvement is directly linked to decision-making. Voter apathy dilutes the value of democracy hence the need to encourage participation. The challenge is how to achieve this when there are so many hindrances to participation.
Of late there have been much deliberations on voter apathy. There are various factors affecting levels of voter turnout throughout the world.
Some of the factors as cited in a working paper (June 2006) drawn up by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance were weather, length of time between elections, electoral system, physical access to the polls, the nature of the electoral event — where for instance turnout is lower in local authority elections and referendums as compared to national elections, though not invariably the case.
In Zimbabwe there are a number of issues contributing to voter apathy. During some of the community workshops that the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network (Zesn) has been holding, participants cited factors such as fear, threats and intimidation, lack of knowledge as well as dissatisfaction due to deception and false promises by candidates as responsible for apathy.
Deception by candidates recurred at most workshops as another major factor among socio-economic problems including poverty and lack of confidence in the electoral system. Some cited the lack of integrity of election results, ignorance, discontent with the electoral playing field and disenfranchisement.
Disenfranchisement of voters has become an endemic problem facing electoral processes in developing countries, Zimbabwe included. For years, Zesn has been lobbying for the postal voting system to be extended to all Zimbabweans outside the country. An estimated population of more than 3,5 million Zimbabweans are in the diaspora. This suggests that Zimbabweans outside the country have no right to determine the destiny of their country.
As if that was not enough, in September 2005, Constitutional Amendment (No 17) Act, declared certain categories of people as non-citizens who would not be able to vote in the senatorial elections and any other future elections. These were classified as aliens, people who since December 31 1985 have been regarded by virtue of a written law as permanently resident in Zimbabwe.
In addition people born of foreign parentage or one of whose parents was born out of the country and did not renounce their alleged foreign citizenship in terms of Section 9 of the Citizenship of Zimbabwe Act (Chapter 4:01) as amended by the Citizenship of Zimbabwe Amendment Act, 2001, (Act No 12 of 2001) and the Citizenship of Zimbabwe Amendment Act, 2003 (Act No 12 of 2003). People who by any other means are citizens of a foreign country and did not renounce their foreign citizenship in terms of Citizenship of Zimbabwe Act were also
Those affected were mostly descendants of migrant workers who came into the country as labourers or domestic workers on white-owned farms and in suburban homes and Zimbabweans of European descent. Media reports showed that, by the time the senatorial elections were held last year, the Act disenfranchised over 150 000 voters.
During the 1999 Botswana general elections, in an effort to widen the franchise, the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18, usually an enthusiastic age group, though politicians argued that the youth have no idea whether, or for whom to vote. But the effort itself is commendable and is worth emulating.
The decline in voter turnout has been seen as reflecting a relatively uncompetitive period of national politics. There is no reason not to expect voters to participate in greater numbers once elections become more competitive and more meaningful. A theory supported by the notion is that those people who say there are no important election issues at stake are much less likely to vote.
The apparent refusal by government to extend postal voting to Zimbabweans in the diaspora has lowered turnout and the apparent reluctance in applying proposed reforms by civic organisations are certainly steps backwards.
Anything which persuades people to voluntarily engage in the democratic process should certainly not be dismissed and this also includes ensuring that there are no long queues on voting days, registration periods are continously open as well as making people realise that politics is important in their everyday lives by providing them with adequate information. Unless politics becomes more relevant to people the big picture still looks bleak.
Much thinking on participation seems to have limited relevance to the reality of what it means to be a citizen in a mature democracy. We still hold a rather quaint notion that people should participate because it is a good thing to do; it makes us better citizens. This may have been alright in ancient Greek politics, but research has shown that this does not wash in modern democracies.
The appeal of politics and voting should not be made on the grounds that it is a higher need, we need to recognise that it must compete with other pressures. It needs to become as relevant, attractive and rewarding as watching football or going out for a meal. This is not a call for making politics more gimmicky, its relevance should be based on what it can deliver for the individual and their community.
A major long-term issue then is how do we lower the barriers? How do we make our system one that encourages people to vote? I never use the term apathy in regard to voters because, generally, I don’t think it’s the voters’ fault. I think our government has the first responsibility to make the system one that welcomes people.
As is the case in Zimbabwe, for instance, voters’ registration as provided for in the Electoral Act is a countinous process, but it is only publicised and open for inspection when there is an election. However, this fact is not well publicised and as a result people who want to register as voters only do so when the voters’ roll lies for inspection and moreso, some fail to inspect because of transport problems, ignorance on the importance on this exercise among many other issues.
A positive first step would be to identify those issues which tend to excite the public and invite them to the debates. A truly independent electoral commission should be put in place, and with the help of interested local civic bodies, intensively educate the electorate on the importance of participating in elections, voting in particular or conduct what I call “voter maximisation campaigns”. Such publicity should be taken to the so called grassroots and every one above the age of 18 should have access to such crucial information. Reasons of participating in governance issues should be clearly laid out to the electorate.
* Ellen Kandororo-Dingani is a journalist and Zesn’s media and information officer.