HomeOpinionElectoral reforms: Opposition parties must be more creative

Electoral reforms: Opposition parties must be more creative

I GAVE up on Zimbabwean elections in August 2013. My personal experience and close observation of the electoral process during the July 31 general elections gave me some critical insight into the fiction that we call elections in Zimbabwe. There is no reason why the 2018 election can produce a different outcome unless there is a fundamental shift in the electoral system.

Alex T Magaisa Lawyer

To be sure, I was despondent after the devastating outcome of July 31, but three years later, nothing has happened in respect of the electoral system to change my view that elections in Zimbabwe are fiction.

The idea of elections as a means of political change is written into the constitution: Section 3(2)(c) states the “orderly transfer of power following elections” as one of the principles of good governance. However, this presupposes an electoral system based on “free, fair and regular elections”, another constitutional principle in Section 3(2)(b)(ii).

In other words, the principle of orderly transfer of power through elections has to be read together with the principle of free, fair and regular elections. This raises the question as to whether an election that is incapable of meeting the standards of freeness and fairness can be regarded as properly facilitating an orderly transfer of power and therefore, meeting the constitutional requirements?


But, as the opposition parties have discovered, elections in Zimbabwe are generally farcical, precisely because the electoral system is controlled entirely by Zanu PF. For as long as the electoral system is structured in its present form, there can be no hope whatsoever that any party apart from Zanu PF, can prevail in those elections. New parties coming onto the scene, like People First, will suffer the same fate unless there is a fundamental overhaul of the entire electoral system which disproportionately favours the ruling party.
A brief examination of the electoral system is necessary to illustrate the skewed nature of the electoral system.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), which is responsible for running elections in the country, is a fundamentally flawed institution, particularly at the operational level, where Zanu PF functionaries are in charge. The opposition parties know this and their efforts to instigate reforms at this level before July 31 failed. The change during the Government of National Unity (GNU), of introducing new commissioners was superficial because in reality, the election is run at the secretariat level, where the same staff that had run elections before remained in control. The weakness was exposed when two of the commissioners nominated by the opposition parties resigned weeks before July 31. They had realised they had no power.

The National Logistics Committee, a small but important committee established under the Electoral Law, which in fact is the fulcrum of the entire electoral process, is also run by Zanu PF functionaries. The opposition discovered this fact before July 31, but it was too late in the day. This tiny committee, has a critical role in the logistics of elections: supply of electoral infrastructure, tents, transport and even food to electoral staff. The opposition tried to make their way into this vital committee, but it was too late in the day.

The police also play an important role in the electoral process: enforcing order and security as a public good, but Zanu PF has also captured this important arm of the state ensuring it serves its interests. Apart from this formal role, senior members of the security services have consistently, since the 2002 presidential election, rented out their authority and influence to Zanu PF. This they have done by issuing statements supportive of Zanu PF or threatening to disobey an election outcome that favours the opposition. It was this realisation that prompted calls for security sector reform. While the constitution demands that security services play a non-political, non-partisan role, none of this has been implemented.

In the rural areas, traditional leaders play a critical role in the electoral process. They are a critical source of authority in those areas. Most are co-opted as Zanu PF functionaries, ensuring that people are mobilised, directed or coerced to vote for Zanu PF or risk retribution or losing aid that the state normally supplies as a public good to the impoverished rural population.

The courts, as adjudicators of electoral disputes, have also been accused of taking a partisan role in favour of the ruling party. Taking an electoral dispute to court is almost a pointless exercise. In 2013, the courts virtually gave the Registrar-General (RG) a licence to avoid supplying the electronic copy of the voters’ roll, which the law required, and the opposition had rightfully demanded. While initially ordering the RG to supply the voters’ roll, when the RG stated that his computer had broken down, the High Court had eventually held that he was required to supply the voters’ roll after his computer had been fixed. This was an utterly useless and pointless order, since the RG could always claim his computer was broken down and still claim to be in compliance with the order.
When MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai withdrew his presidential petition, the Constitutional Court still went ahead to make a determination in the case, all because it was necessary to make a pronouncement that the election had been free and fair and therefore confer legitimacy on the election outcome.

State media, which is supposed to provide fair and impartial coverage to all political parties, is brazenly supportive of Zanu PF. When President Robert Mugabe launched Zanu PF’s election manifesto in 2013, the national broadcaster, ZBC, provided live coverage. When Tsvangirai, who was prime minister, requested similar coverage for the launch of his party’s manifesto, they were quoted a ridiculously high fee which ensured it was virtually impossible to get the service. There is no reason to believe that Zanu PF and Mugabe had been asked to pay or did pay such a fee.

These are just a few illustrations of an utterly compromised electoral system, which is completely incapable of delivering a free and fair election. Thirty-six years of rule have given Zanu PF unrivalled control of state institutions and the electoral system. It is instructive to note that when Zanu PF holds rallies, state security details unashamedly wear Zanu PF regalia, demonstrating their allegiance.

The opposition had an opportunity, between 2009 and 2013, when the two MDC parties were part of the GNU, alongside Zanu PF. However, this opportunity did not yield the desired change in the system, largely due to Zanu PF’s intransigence and resistance, but also partly because of the opposition parties’ failure to drive reforms. One of the chief reasons of participating in the GNU was to promote the reform agenda, but apart from the achievement of the new constitution, it was disappointing that the reform agenda failed.

It was because of this failure that the 2013 elections were held under conditions similar and by an electoral system virtually unchanged from previous elections. Zanu PF rail-roaded the nation into an election before the constitutional reforms had taken effect and the opposition went along with it, believing, wrongly, that the sheer numbers would overwhelm the compromised electoral system. It was a false hope. Given that scenario, the devastating outcome of July 31 should not have been a surprise. The electoral system was set up to deliver such an outcome and that system still has not changed.

This hopeless situation explains why the main opposition parties, the MDC-T and its offshoots, have consistently boycotted by-elections since the July 31 elections. They are boycotting in protest against the electoral system which they argue cannot deliver a free and fair election. It eventually dawned on the parties after the July 31 elections that they were participating in and giving legitimacy to a fiction.

The question, however, is: whether the by-elections boycott alone will force Zanu PF to reform the electoral system? There is no reason to believe that Zanu PF has the incentive to initiate reforms that will reduce its advantages. In other words, Zanu PF will not cause reforms that will drive it out of power. It is completely irrational to expect them to do so. A brief look at the history of political reforms shows that they have only happened after the exertion of pressure from the opposition and sometimes with the assistance of Sadc.

The trouble with the opposition’s approach right now is that they have boycotted by-elections and demanded reforms of the electoral system, but this is not accompanied by any pressure on Zanu PF to meet these demands. It’s unlikely that they will be moved. Right now they are boasting that they have won all by-elections since July 31. They have managed to secure space in areas they would never have dreamt of winning in the recent past.

This, therefore, calls for some dynamism and creativity on the part of opposition parties — mechanisms to ensure that there is sufficient pressure to effect electoral reforms. How do they apply pressure upon Zanu PF to cause reforms? It has often been said that in order to beat Zanu PF, the opposition must unite. Unity is a good thing, true, but unity without reforms to the electoral system will only give false hope. A united entity will come up against the very same system that has proved to be an insurmountable barrier for the opposition.

If there is anything useful that a united opposition must do, it is to apply necessary pressure to cause reforms to the electoral system. The constitution has various provisions, all of them lawful and democratic, which can be utilised to harness and apply pressure for electoral reforms. What is required is organisational ability to ensure these reforms are undertaken.

The opposition parties failed to cause reforms during their brief tenure in government. The task is much harder now that they are outside government. The government is still dragging its feet on implementation of the constitution because they know this will cause a fundamental shift in the electoral system. There is need for more creativity in the pursuit of electoral reforms in 2016, not later. The unity they talk about should be now, for purposes of tackling the electoral system first, before they even think of participating, let alone victory in the 2018 elections.

Dr Magaisa is a lawyer and lecturer at Kent State University in the UK. — wamagaisa@yahoo.co.uk

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