How to avoid flawed elections

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Elections are now the obsession of all as the way forward in the aftermath of last November’s military coup, but the very big question is what kind of elections.

Ibbo Mandaza & Tony Reeler
scholars

However, Zimbabwe has a very poor record when it comes to elections that have been accepted by both Zimbabweans and the international community. Even though there are standards for elections set by the African Union (AU) and Sadc for what can be accepted as free and fair, there is little evidence that these standards are applied with any rigour. For example, think here about the elections in 2002 and 2008. For both these elections, widely seen by all as unacceptably violent, the two reports commissioned by South Africa, the major source of validation for Zimbabwean elections, were suppressed.

One, the Khampepe/Moseneke report, had to be extricated through legal action, and it took six years at enormous expense. The second report, that of the two generals sent by former South African president Thabo Mbeki in 2008, has never been made public. And, most recently, the Sadc Observer Mission report on the 2013 elections has also never been made public.

The point we are making is that observation is conducted in order to assess the validity of an election, but this can scarcely happen if critical evidence is suppressed. The only conclusion that can be drawn here is that observation of Zimbabwean elections, by those “selected” by the Zimbabwean government in the past, does not suggest that there have been neutral observers.

This is hugely important as we approach the poll later this year, and in a situation that is already tainted by the serious problems arising out of the coup last year. As we pointed out in our last opinion piece, there is a world of difference between calling the overthrow of a government a coup, calling it a military-assisted transition, or expressing serious concern about the involvement of the military in civilian affairs. The first triggers complicated diplomatic procedures, the second basically whitewashes unconstitutional actions by the military, and the third could create space for consultations about how to restore the country to constitutionalism.

However, the first position was avoided for very obvious reasons, but apparently not by the United States government. The second has been applied in a largely uncritical fashion, and the third has been avoided through the apparent curative powers of elections. In addition, and regarding the second, it does appear that the international community is in a hurry to re-engage, and ahead of an election that could turn very nasty.

Now, these are elections that will take place in a country with an already poor record for holding deeply contested elections, and frequently very violent ones as we point out above. They also take place in a country where the military has intervened to re-arrange the government, and is ensconcing itself more and more deeply in the civilian structure of the country. The blunt question can be asked: how probable is it that this new political arrangement can organise a genuinely free and fair election? And, furthermore, how likely is that this arrangement will accept a loss at the polls, as Alex Magaisa pointed out recently?

These are not trivial questions.

Firstly, any suggestion that the new Zanu PF can easily win an election must take into account that it will fight an election against multiple parties, both outside and inside Zanu PF. It can plausibly be argued that the new Zanu PF will struggle in the Matabeleland provinces, may lose in many metropolitan areas, and may even do badly in Manicaland and the Mashonaland provinces. The party could lose this election.

It is also interesting the Zanu PF brand seems to have disappeared. The so-called G40 is not competing for the brand, and re-cast itself as the New Patriotic Front, and the faction now governing seems to push the “ED” brand in preference to the Zanu PF brand. This would seem to indicate the demise of the party as such, or is it an attempt to leave the brand, and its associations, with Robert Mugabe?

Secondly, the argument that the opposition political parties are so badly split and disorganised, and will split the vote allowing the new Zanu PF to win must also be interrogated very carefully. It should not be concluded that the vast turnout around the coup was merely support for the military: it is equally probable that the numbers reflect those who wanted Mugabe gone, but also that they are hoping for Zanu PF also to be gone.

In this election, it may be that a majority vote for an opposition party will be a protest vote against Zanu PF, as was the case in 2008, but it is hardly encouraging that the main opposition political party chooses to go into internecine war four months before the elections.

This all suggests that the probability of an election similar to 2008 is very great, and hence there are great dangers lurking around the election. Remember that the only cost for Zanu PF for the violence inflicted in 2008 was to be invited to Pretoria for peace talks and inclusion in a government of national unity! This can easily be the default position for a party that has never displayed any propensity for relinquishing political power. This has been crudely stated by Zanu PF stalwarts on multiple occasions. Thus, it would seem that Zanu PF may have crafted a win-win situation for itself.

It is for this reason that it is critical that very careful attention is paid to the fullest range of reforms that will be necessary to prevent a repeat of 2008. As we pointed out previously, the following are absolutely fundamental, and we repeat these for emphasis:
Security sector containment: As a bare minimum this will require a public statement by the heads of security services that they will be non-partisan in terms of the constitution and their enabling legislation. This needs to be expanded by the removal of security personnel from civilian activities, including command agriculture, and the setting up of a multi-party monitoring team to ensure compliance with all of the above.

Traditional leader containment: Again, as a bare minimum this will require a public statement by the Council of Chiefs that they will be non-partisan in terms of the constitution and their enabling legislation. These public statements will need to be repeated by all chiefs in all areas, accompanied by their headmen and village heads, and, again, the setting up of a multi-party monitoring team to ensure compliance with the above.

Impartiality of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec): This can be done either placing a Sadc-appointed chair of Zec or providing a Sadc-appointed “shadow” for the Zimbabwean-appointed chair. There are calls for this already. Additionally, there must be the setting up of a multi-party monitoring team to ensure full compliance with all aspects of the constitution and the Electoral Act. Furthermore, no constraints must be placed on Zimbabwean civil society bodies undertaking civic education or observing elections, and no barring of any country or body that wishes to observe elections, including long-term observers.

Media reforms: There is the essential requirement to providing open access to radio and television. There must be a public statement by the government that all political parties have open access to state radio and television, and also the setting up of a multi-party monitoring team to ensure compliance with open access and equality of access for political parties.

Full citizen participation: The process of elections needs to allow the fullest participation of all Zimbabwean citizens, as was the case in 1980. This means that there must be an amendment of the Electoral Act to allow full Proportional Representation for the Presidency and the House of Assembly. Citizens can thus vote anywhere, and parties will be accorded seats according to their proportion of the vote.

Comprehensive monitoring: Most critical of all monitoring processes must be the embedding of Sadc personnel in every one of the monitoring groups mentioned above. This is crucial to creating confidence that the process is occurring with respect to the constitution, the law, and the AU and Sadc election principles and guidelines.

Peacekeeping: It would be usual in the aftermath of a coup that a peacekeeping force was placed in the country. Here we do not need this to avoid conflict between warring groups, but to ensure that there are teeth to all the monitoring. There will be need for intense international scrutiny of these elections, in anticipation of a possible post-election fallout, attempts at another coup, and the kind of violence that was unleashed in 2008.

Without these conditions, and in the context of an illegitimate assumption of political power, there must be a concerted effort by all democratic forces, local, regional, and international to assert the conditions necessary for a genuinely free and fair election.

It requires a coming together of all who are interested in a genuine transition to a fully democratic state to insist on a truly level playing field. It is not enough to accept the blandishments of the current regime, and then to wait for the outcome to then judge the result.

This will be a deep betrayal of the ordinary people of Zimbabwe, especially if they will bear the brunt of yet another violent election. Those that watch and wait will be deeply judged for their inertia, just as they were in 2008.

Mandaza and Reeler are the co-convenors of the Platform for Concerned Citizens.

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