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Electoral reform: Ball in govt’s court

THIS is the final instalment of a report by Piers Pigou titled Zimbabwe’s Reforms: An Exercise In Credibility — Or Pretence, which was published by the South African-based Institute for Security Studies in its current issue.

Piers Pigou,Political Analyst

THE purveyors of constructive engagement claim that there have been significant improvements in the operating environment in Zimbabwe and that the government is committed to reform. They are also aware of the array of drawbacks and obstacles, but argue there is no alternative for Zanu PF and, however reluctantly, they will embrace and/or submit to the reform agenda.

But a widespread cynicism of Zanu PF’s commitments remains, grounded in years of false promises and duplicity, highlighting the profound trust deficit that Zanu PF refuses to even acknowledge. Is an authentic engagement possible if Zanu PF is unwilling to invest in generating confidence, and those supporting an ostensible reform agenda reflect on shortcomings only in hushed tones?

How does one then prove or disprove that advances have moved significantly beyond the rhetoric of reform?

Certainly constructive engagement in this context is a gamble, and there are dangers this may segue into unnecessary concessions in some instances.

Will support intended to promote change in fact prolong the structural underpinnings of the problem one seeks to address? How does one determine what bang one gets for one’s buck? Is there a realistic alternative approach?

The current approach is considerably weakened without an accompanying monitoring and assessment frame in place. A more robust evaluation methodology would enable a more focused critique to properly gauge substantive progress that, in turn, would help ensure improvements are recognised and shortfalls are highlighted. Such assessments should be as transparent and inclusive as possible in order to engender greater understanding of what has been achieved, as well as the limitations of what may be possible. This would enable not only a more nuanced judgement, but also a calibrated response.

Such an approach should be tied to the reforms government has committed itself to in the Lima Strategy. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) outwardly retains a confident face, praising the government for meeting targets in the extended Staff-Monitored Programme (SMP) which it argues lay the foundations for re-engagement with the international community. But they are undoubtedly worried as progress has faltered; they have diplomatically turned up the volume, imploring the government to undertake “bold reforms” acknowledging that “a step-up to a comprehensive and deep economic policy adjustment agenda will be critical to addressing Zimbabwe’s daunting economic challenges”.

But policy recommendations and the trajectory of progress are predicated largely on hope that government will do what it says it will; public confidence in the government’s potential is upbeat, but belief it will actually deliver remains superficial and is slipping.

Only two days after the IMF’s May assessment, the bond note bombshell was dropped. It was soon evident that no one, including the IMF, had been consulted on this questionable policy development. This development does little to build confidence in government policy or the banking system, and there is a growing belief in some quarters that recovery is simply not possible under Zanu PF’s political tutelage.

In late June, and early July, Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and Reserve Bank governor John Mangudya were lobbying for support, arguing that reforms were on track, and that a parallel negotiation process was ongoing for new financing. The IMF denied a financing programme was under discussion. To move forward, government will have to implement an array of unpopular measures, such as cuts in the public payroll and the privatisation of state-owned enterprises.

It is in this context that the roadmap for Zimbabwe’s return to the international fold remains fraught with improbability.

The problematical voters’ roll

Zimbabwe is heading towards another disputed election in 2018. At the heart of the challenge is a fundamental lack of trust in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) and its voter registration processes, whose credibility is undermined by the lack of a clear legal framework.

A credible and independent voter registration process under the control of Zec is still not in place and the partisan hand of Registrar-General (RG) Tobaiwa Mudede remains in play. The current roll should be fully under the control of the Zec by now, but it is not. To prevent any meaningful analysis of the controversial 2013 election results, Mudede (well past retirement age) has systematically blocked access to an electronic version of the 2013 voters’ roll, claiming an unspecified technical fault. This excuse has been supported by the High Court which has inexplicably avoided efforts to determine the nature of the fault and how it might be fixed.

Prevented from accessing the roll, which should then be followed by a systematic audit, Zec did not challenge this, but has instead relied on updating the roll in a piecemeal fashion and initiated its own pilot registration process tied to a series of by-elections over the last 30 months. This process was riddled with shortcomings, underscored continued dependence on the RG’s Office for technical support and did little to engender confidence that the Zec will be able to deliver a competent voter registration process.

Zec has now decided it will put in place a biometric voter registration (BVR) system and is looking for significant donor support to underwrite it. BVR will not necessarily enhance the integrity of elections, especially if confidence in Zec is waning, and the RG continues to retain a platform of influence over access to the documentation required.

It will also conveniently ensure the avoidance of a retrospective analysis of the 2013 roll. In addition, no effort has been made by parliament to interrogate Zec’s 2013 election report.

In this context, it is highly unlikely Zec will put in place processes that will address the fundamental trust deficit it faces which is rooted in widespread concerns about its previous facilitation of Zanu PF election victories.

With donors likely to continue supporting preparations for elections, clarification should be sought by the European Union as to whether its observers will now be welcome at the 2018 polls. Donors should also offer to underwrite the cost of enabling the diaspora vote which is now provided for in the constitution, but which government claims is not affordable in the current economic climate.

Conclusion: No solution in sight

Zimbabwe is in dire straits. For some, neither Zanu PF nor the opposition can provide a way out of this inexorable decline and argue a “third way” must be found. In the meantime, Zanu PF’s reform programme is being treated as if it is the only game in town; in the absence of alternatives, strengthening the credibility of this process is essential.

The absence of a clear framework to evaluate progress on reform frustrates prospects for developing a common, empirically grounded appreciation of government’s commitment (or lack thereof) to transformation, and where and how this can be strengthened.

Zanu PF has not invested adequately in generating confidence in its reform agenda; understandably, it remains in question for many. Half-hearted commitments leave many believing the reform agenda is in many respects a charade and that limited progress to date reflects a lack of genuine commitment from the government. The exclusive nature of interactions and negotiations around the reform process and its content does not lend itself to broad-based support or the legitimacy required to help build the necessary reform momentum. This deficit needs to be rectified by both government and the international community who seek to support the reforms.

But this should not cast doubt on the importance and potential of constructive engagement, but rather the nature of this engagement, how it is assessed and enhanced. The Lima Strategy provides a minimal outline for assessment, but is sparse on key details around issues such as the rule of law, institutional capacity building and dealing with corruption. It also fails to recognise fundamental challenges such as political partisanship in state structures.

The reform ball is firmly in Zanu PF’s court and has been for some time. As this paper demonstrates, an array of issues requiring attention have been identified and in many areas government acknowledges action is required. Yet government is still to move from the realms of rhetoric to tangible action; there are also a number of important exclusions that need attention. Options for reinforcing engagement and promoting inclusivity must promote a space for Zimbabwean civil society, who in turn must find their voice as a primary role player on the road to recovery.

Pigou has worked for several organisations focused on human rights, transitional justice and political violence, including the South African and East Timorese truth commissions, since 1992. Between June 2009 and October 2010, he was a senior associate responsible for Southern Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular, at the International Centre for Transitional Justice. In April 2011, he joined the International Crisis Group (ICG) as project director for Southern Africa. Since November 2015, he has been a part-time consultant for ICG.

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