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Comment: Genuine reforms must precede polls

ZIMBABWE now appears to be heading for the polls, possibly mid next year, after Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai confirmed he had agreed with President Robert Mugabe that “the prevailing peace was ideal for us to go for elections”.

Tsvangirai told his supporters last weekend during his party’s 11th anniversary celebrations in Gokwe that he had agreed with Mugabe that they should go for elections and whoever loses should not contest the result.
This followed confirmation by Finance minister Tendai Biti that Mugabe had ordered him to budget US$200 million for the referendum on the draft constitution and elections.
The issue of elections must be taken seriously. Genuine democratic elections are an expression of the will of the people that provides the basis for the authority and legitimacy of government.
While Mugabe and Tsvangirai claim “the prevailing peace was ideal for us to go for elections”, we think the environment is far from conducive, let alone “ideal”.
It is true that Zimbabwe, which has invariably since 1980 gone through cycles of political violence, is relatively stable and calm since the inclusive government was formed last year.
However, the country is clearly not yet ready to hold free and fair elections for many reasons. The current electoral reforms have not yet been finalised. There is need for time to allow the reforms to be institutionalised and new institutions to start functioning efficiently.
Before free and fair elections can be held there is need for far-reaching political reforms. One of the critical areas which need to be addressed before elections is security sector reform. The security forces have always been used to influence elections in favour of Mugabe and this must be stopped.
This is a very critical pre-condition to free and fair elections because security forces and para-military Zanu PF-linked structures have been at the forefront of unleashing violence and intimidation during elections.
There is also a need to change the political culture and mindsets of citizens. This will take a long time but it must start now. Although elections are confrontational by nature, no one should be intimidated or coerced to vote for anyone. It is both inhumane and wicked for politicians to walk on the corpses of their countrymen back into power.
Before fresh elections Zimbabwe needs first to fully adopt Sadc principles and guidelines governing democratic elections. These include creating conditions to ensure full participation of citizens in the political process, freedom of association, assembly and speech, political tolerance, equal opportunity for political parties, independence of the judiciary, impartiality of electoral institutions, opportunity to exercise the right to vote and be voted for, voter education, acceptance of election results and the opportunity to challenge contested results in terms of the law of the land.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which runs elections, must be impartial and competent. A new voters’ roll which is accurate and up to date is needed. Impartial voter education must be freely allowed. Delimitation of constituencies must be transparent and credible, and there should be no gerrymandering.
Elections are a process, not just an event. For elections to be free and fair, it is necessary the entire process leading up to and including the actual voting be peaceful, free and fair. Political parties must be able to campaign freely and peacefully. Violence or intimidation must not be allowed. Bribery and corruption, as well as other illegal electoral practices such as inducements by politicians, must be prevented or severely punished.
Political parties contesting elections must have fair and equal access to the public media. Polling stations must be accessible to voters and be adequately manned. Monitors and observers must be given free access. The counting of votes must be done accurately and efficiently and results announced promptly.
So far Zimbabwe, still divided and nursing political wounds from the past, remains a long way from creating conditions for free and fair elections. Government must not take chances and in the process risk people’s lives and their future by rushing to elections before the country is ready.

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