THE voters’ roll availed by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) to the public, civil society and political parties — which is glaringly devoid of biometric features and the number of voters who registered during the register inspection period — is susceptible to manipulation and rigging ahead of the general elections set for July 30.
By Tinashe Kairiza
Zec which has now succumbed to pressure to release a voters’s roll with all features, claims it registered an additional 16 000 registrants during the voters’ register inspection, between May 19 and May 29, but these were not captured in the published roll.
For the first time in Zimbabwe’s electoral history, Zec conducted a biometric voter registration exercise ahead of this year’s polls before making public the roll with 5 681 604 voters.
However, the voter register has sparked uproar from civil society, opposition parties and members of the public, who say that it does not capture biometric features and registrants who registered during the inspection period.
They say the omission opens room for potential manipulation and rigging.
By its own admission, Zec has admitted that the roll it made public was not “final”. Zec says a register with biometric features that include pictures would only be available at the polling stations on voting day.
In Zimbabwe’s 38 years of disputed polls, the voters’ roll has always been a source of fierce contestation, with Zec widely accused of tampering with the register, to rig elections on behalf of Zanu PF.
MDC Alliance presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa has not held back in his criticism of the roll released by Zec, describing it as “fake”, as a result of its glaring defects.
“We’ve now established that the voters’ roll Zec is issuing is not the final roll. Those who ‘registered’ during inspection are yet to be added. Zec claims it will add them later. So Zec has given us a voters’ roll it knows is not final,” Chamisa tweeted last week.
Zec has said omitting biometric features which include pictures from the published roll would prevent jeopardising the private lives of registrants, while the electoral body was not constitutionally obligated to publish the photographs of the voting public. The roll released by Zec only contains voters’ names, residential addresses and registration numbers.
Election Resource Centre (ERC), a local electoral watchdog, says Zec is legally bound to release a biometric voters’ roll with attendant facial features, and the omission of photographs created fertile ground for speculation that the election management body was intent on manipulating the make-or-break general election.
“The law provides for Zec to release the voters’ roll to stakeholders. Given that Zec has been working on a biometric voters’ roll, the expectation was what would be shared would be a biometric voters’ roll,” said the organisation on its website.
“Biometric voters’ rolls are known to contain biometric features, including a photograph.”
Jesse Majome, a lawyer and independent candidate for the Harare West constituency, also said that it was not plausible for Zec to withhold photographs from the roll on the grounds of privacy and security, since such features are publicly obtainable from the Deeds Office, at a nominal charge. In democracies, such as Britain, Majome says, the electoral roll, with an estimated 75 million registrants, contains voters’ “full names, detailed addresses, and length of the residency at their addresses, as well as the other household occupants they may share the address with and the previous household occupants as well as their neighbour’s details.”
She dismissed the argument proffered by Zec that voters’ pictures are “private” and publishing them on the roll availed to the public would endanger their lives.
Political analyst and visiting politics lecturer at Rhodes University (South Africa) Mike Mavura said with the current voters’ roll, suspected to be littered with phantom registrants, Zimbabwe’s watershed polls next month risk failing the credibility test.
He, however, cautioned that election observers, who have traditionally been barred from observing polls in Zimbabwe, were likely going to declare the forthcoming election as free and fair, despite the shambolic voters’ roll as well as the uneven electoral environment.
Election observers from the European Union (EU) and Commonwealth, among other observer teams previously barred by former president Robert Mugabe, have been invited to assess this year’s polls.
“I think we are still streets away from having the perfect election and electoral process and the bar is quite low for what passes as a credible election in Zimbabwe, the weight is mostly tilted on the free than the fair side of things,” Mavura noted.
“Zec and, most importantly, election observers, are likely to see this as an improvement from the previous election where opposition parties only got access to the voters’ roll on the eve of the election. Opposition parties will claim manipulation and rigging if they lose.”
Social commentator Maxwell Saungweme said the omission of voters’ pictures and registrants who registered after deadline day was a deliberate ploy by Zec, whose independence is questionable, to manipulate and rig the polls.
Since formation in 1999, the opposition MDC has contested the credibility of every poll it has participated in, citing a shambolic voters’ roll which has been singled out as the ultimate theatre of Zanu PF’s rigging practices.
The controversial roll published by Zec, he added, offered insight on how the electoral supervisory and management body was angling to rob the opposition, amid the overwhelming number of people who are attending the MDC Alliance rallies as Zimbabwe hurtles towards the polls.
“The fact that Zec produced a voters’ roll that does not have all people who registered and is missing photos is a clear indication that they are leaving loopholes for poll manipulation. It is clear the junta (millitary chiefs who ousted Mugabe last year in November) has the power in Zimbabwe, so they control everything, including Zec,” Saungweme said.
“So after being confounded by Chamisa’s crowds, they (Zec) will do any trick in the book to rig the poll. Loopholes in the voters’ roll are not caused by logistical, financial or technological challenges, but are deliberately executed to manipulate the poll.”
Zimbabwe’s opposition political parties have consistently engaged the Southern Development Community and other international bodies to facilitate the implementation of sweeping electoral reforms by government, chief among them compiling a clean voters’ roll, free of phantom voters.
Next month’s general elections will pit President Emmerson Mnangagwa and 22 other presidential candidates, including his main rival MDC Alliance candidate Chamisa.