‘Electoral, Judicial Reforms Necessary for Free Polls’

ELECTORAL experts have said Zimbabwe must urgently create an independent election management body that excludes the Registrar-General (RG)’s office in the running of polls.


They said there was also a need to reform the judiciary, which they accused of failing to protect ordinary citizens during last year’s bloody presidential election run-off.

Speaking at a post-2008 election review and prospects for electoral reform in Victoria Falls this week, the experts said parliament should be empowered to exercise an oversight role on electoral processes in the country.

The conference was co-hosted by the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network and the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA). It was attended by cabinet ministers, MPs, regional electoral officials, diplomats and civil society representatives.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights director Irene Petras said parliamentary reforms were crucial to ensure that MPs oversee election budgeting, the delimitation of constituencies and the operations of an independent election management body.

Petras said the inclusive government needed to audit and review all laws affecting elections in the country for future elections to be free and fair.   

“There is need for a comprehensive audit, not only of electoral laws but also of other laws which impact on the electoral process and its outcome and the requirements for a free and fair election,” she said.

Petras criticised as “cosmetic” amendments that were made in January last year to the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Public Order and Security Act, the Broadcasting Services Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.  

The Electoral Act and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act were also amended under the mediation of former South African president Thabo Mbeki.

The amendments were made to strengthen the legal and electoral framework and processes for the March and June 2008 harmonised elections and the run-off election respectively.

“Piecemeal amendments to laws and constitutional reforms and constitutional provisions regulating elections in Zimbabwe do not work and cannot protect the integrity of the elections,” Petras said.

“Looking back at the vociferous manner in which the political parties (Zanu PF and the two MDC formations) defended these amendments and their manner of passage to the civil society and the public in general one could be forgiven for thinking that major changes had been made for the better, and that Zimbabweans could now be assured that the general legal framework which was required to ensure a smooth and fair electoral process and to protect the outcome of the popular vote had been put in place.”  
She said following the amendments “voices and faces” of now Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni of the Mavambo movement were heard and seen on state television and radio.
“Police were to be removed from polling stations and voters felt that at last they would be able to vote freely and not be unduly intimidated by this partisan force,” Petras said.

However, she noted, the environment changed after the March elections in which Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe, hence the need for a run-off.

“Unprecedented levels of political violence, a terror campaign, arrests and prosecutions of substantial numbers of presiding officers working for Zimbabwe Electoral Commission on allegations of vote tampering took place,” Petras said.

She lamented the continued involvement of the RG’s office in the running of elections in the country.
“The Registrar-General’s office continued to involve itself in the electoral process without proper scrutiny and accountability. The state broadcaster was used later for a vicious hate campaign against Tsvangirai and the party he led,” she added.

Petras accused the RG’s office of preventing voters and candidates from scrutinising the voters roll and police of barring the MDC-Tsvangirai from holding rallies in various parts of the country using Posa.
She also lamented the delay in announcing results of the March 2008 harmonised elections, especially the presidential poll.

“The MDC approached the courts for an order to have the results declared but were turned down in a judgement which has been largely and comprehensively criticised by the legal profession and academics and jurists beyond our border,” Petras said.

“Recounts were ordered and carried out before the results of the presidential election were even known or made public and legally challenged. In this context when the results were eventually released their authenticity could no longer be guaranteed… This together with the ensuing presidential run-off became the most contested and illegitimate election since Independence.”

Petras accused the courts in Zimbabwe of failing to serve and protect the vote in March 2008.

“Institutional and individuals independent of the judiciary assisted by a compromised and politicised office of the Attorney-General ensured that the will of the people would not and could not be respected,” she said.

“This was not only in relation to the manner in which electoral legislation and the constitution were interpreted by those on the bench, but also by the inability or unwillingness of the Attorney-General to identify and prosecute perpetrators of violations and the judiciary to ensure that they were properly punished.”   

Electoral expert Armin Rabitsch said there was need for electoral reforms in Zimbabwe which have to include the establishment of an independent and competent electoral commission, a transparent voter registration exercise, a free media space, creation of an appeals process with an independent judiciary, postal and external voting, strengthening of women’s representation in parties and broader civic and voter education.

He said there was need to strengthen intra-party democracy and poll watchers, revision of some sections of the constitution, role of government in elections, clear result tallying, transfer and announcement processes, among others.

Legal expert Geoff Feltoe said there were laws in the country’s statutes that look good on paper, but were never enforced in the March 2008 elections.

Feltoe said: “Electoral law reforms certainly don’t guarantee free and fair elections. Good electoral laws are only effective if they are observed and enforced. Reforms ahead of the 2008 elections hardly had any impact at all.

“Electoral reform will have little impact unless the electoral environment is conducive to holding free and fair elections.”

BY WONGAI ZHANGAZHA

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