Critical assessment of Freedom House survey

UNSURPRISINGLY, the recently published Freedom House public opinion survey on elections and other issues has attracted a great deal of public attention. Naturally, reflective of a nation gearing up for elections within the next 12 months, the greatest focus has been concentrated on the electoral fortunes of the main political protagonists – Zanu PF and the MDC-T.

Report by Alex T. Magaisa
Nevertheless, these headline-grabbing parts of the survey conceal far more than they reveal the great challenges and ambiguities on Zimbabwe’s political landscape. Two critical aspects buried in this debate over electoral fortunes are issues relating to the public’s trust in public institutions and the fear factor and attendant risks, as perceived by the public in respect of the election process.

 
The critical question is: to what extent do the survey findings shed light on the role and impact of public institutions in the realisation of free and fair elections in Zimbabwe?

 
On this issue of public trust in public institutions, it is useful not only to observe the survey but also to critically examine their veracity by juxtaposing them against events on the political landscape. To what extent are they reflective of the features appertaining to these institutions? One must bear in mind the risk that some statistics may show an exaggerated picture that is not reflected, supported or justified by events on the broader political landscape.

 
It would be unfortunate and dangerous if some of the overly flattering statistics were to be used as justifications for resisting necessary institutional reforms.

 
The public institutions which we focus on as portrayed in the survey report are: the judiciary, police, Attorney-General’s Office, and the military. All these, apart from parliament, are supposed to be politically neutral institutions. We also note some significant omissions in the survey, which would have enhanced thefindings, namely the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), Registrar-General’s Office and the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).

 
 The Judiciary
According to the survey, 48% of the respondents trust the judiciary compared to 36% who do not trust it. There are no figures for 2010 as this was not tested in that survey.

 
The judiciary is an important institution – one of the three arms of the state – which plays a key role in interpreting laws passed by parliament and checking the use of executive powers when implementing laws and policies. As such, it is an institution that must be independent, politically-neutral and trustworthy.

 

The fact that not even half of the respondents trust the judiciary is a serious indictment on the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.

 
It is important to note that of the 36% of the respondents that do not trust the judiciary, 15% do not trust it at all. The reasons for the lack of trust are not explored in the survey but given the politically-related nature of the survey and content of the questions, it can be surmised that the lack of trust has political connotations or at least relates to the judiciary’s handling of politically related matters. A credible judiciary must enjoy a significant amount of confidence of the people.

 
All this is indicative of further justification for carrying out comprehensive reforms of the judiciary. It also explains why there have been calls for reform on the judicial appointments system.

 
 Attorney-General
The survey shows 31% of the respondents do not trust the AG’s office of which 16% do not trust it at all. Far less than half the respondents (38%) are reported to have some trust in the AG’s office. Again, like the judiciary this is an office that ought to enjoy a decent level of public confidence and 38% is extremely low a figure for a body that is responsible not only for legal advice to the government but more importantly, for conducting criminal prosecutions on behalf of the state.

 
The lack of trust reflects public concerns about the lack of political neutrality of the AG, which has not been publicly denied, alleged selective application of the law and alleged abuse and misuse of authority and discretion. The latter is often manifested in the manner in which the notorious section 122 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act is routinely invoked by officers of the AG’s Office – a fact that has been noted and condemned by the courts.

 
 Police
Incredibly, the survey shows 60% of the respondents trust the police. This is up from 43% in 2010. At least 37% state that they do not trust the police which is still an improvement from 2010 when 52% declared that they did not trust the service. Overall, the figures suggest that the police are now enjoying a higher level of public trust than they did in 2010. In fact 40% in 2012 trust it “a lot” compared to just 16% in 2010.

 
The positive figures suggest that the police service is doing well and has regained public confidence but how do these figures correspond with reality on the broader political landscape? Factors accounting for the alleged rise in support for the police are not clear but one plausible argument could be that there has been relatively few incidents of a political nature in the period covered by the survey (2010 – 2012) and police have generally been confined to their normal non-politically-related duties.

 
Apart from endemic corruption, police have not been known to take political approaches to non-politically related offences. It is widely acknowledged that in the past major complaints have arisen in respect of politically-motivated crimes where perpetrators have been allowed to escape justice while victims have been persecuted.

 
The fact that there has been no elections or any major political events warranting the investigation of more politically-motivated or related offences and close interaction with the public in political matters means that there has been no cause for major concern between the ordinary people and the police.

 
 Military
The survey states that an incredible 61% of the respondents trust the military (inclusive of 40% actually who apparently, trust it “a lot”). The 61% represents a 15% upward rise from the 46% that trusted the military in 2010. 34% do not trust the military, with 20% of these not trusting it “a lot”. However, 34% of those who don’t trust the military represent an improvement from the 46% figure of those who expressed lack of trust in 2010.

 
Therefore, overall, the survey seems to show a positive reflection of public confidence in the military. As with the police, the reasons for this rise in confidence are however not clear from the report. It could be that, as with the police, military involvement in political matters is generally low during this period.  There was however a number of controversial remarks by senior commanders like Major General Douglas Nyikayaramba and Major General Martin Chedondo which courted negative publicity on the military’s involvement in civilian politics.

 

 

These statements were similar to statements previously issued in the past by other senior military officers – in all a reflection of the military taking specific positions in civilian politics. The military continues to be represented in almost all spheres of state affairs, including state-owned commercial entities. The military’s role in the mining of diamonds in Marange has also fuelled controversy and debate about the army’s role. None of this would be cause for increased public trust in the military but these issues don’t seem to register on the survey’s barometer of public trust.

 
Parliament
According to the survey, 49% trust parliament a 2% rise from the 47% who reportedly showed trust in the institution in 2010. The 49% includes 29% who trust it “a lot”, up from just 16% expressing the same view in 2010. This also appears to be a positive show of confidence in parliament.

 
We are not quite sure what might have caused the surge in public trust toward parliament. We cannot pinpoint any great achievements in the august House which have caused an upward movement in public trust. Only recently, ordinary people have expressed concern over MPs’ demands for more money while civil servants are failing to get salary increases. It would have been helpful if the survey enquired into reasons for the rise or decline in trust because at present the increase in trust is difficult to explain.

 
Missing institutions
As we can observe, the survey touched on a number of key public institutions including the judiciary, police, AG’s office, parliament and the military but surprisingly in findings which seek to gauge public opinion on election-related matters, key institutions that play significant roles in elections, such as the Zec and RG’s office, are omitted.

 
In focussing only on the “military” and the “police”, the survey does not also assess public trust in the state’s intelligence service (CIO), notwithstanding the fact that it is a key public institution that is often implicated in political affairs. It would be helpful in future to gauge public opinion on this institution, too.

 
More significant, however, is the omission of Zec and the RG’s office. Zec is the body that is charged with the responsibility of managing the conduct and supervision of elections.  The RG’s office handles the role of voter registration and compilation of the voters’ roll. The fact Zec does not have exclusive control of voter registration and compilation of the voters’ roll – currently performed by the RG’s office has been the subject of criticism for a number of years.

 
The independence, impartiality and effectiveness of this body will be very influential in the next elections and how the public views its performance would have been an important barometer at this juncture.  But the omission of some institutions from the measure of public opinion on public institutions shows the survey may not be complete and its findings may resultantly be tentative.

 

 

  • Dr Magaisa is based at Kent Law School, the University of Kent. He can be contacted atwamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk