My experience as election candidate

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I am a zombie today and feel like I have lost a day somewhere because I have not slept for two days due to the election. I have been running for Harare City Council for the past three months and, even though campaigning got progressively intense, nothing had prepared me for the grueling pace of the actual election day.

By Debbie Peters

The afternoon before the election, I drove around the six polling stations to examine the set-up, meet the Zimbabwe Election Commission (Zec) staff and plan the number of election agents needed at each station. On D-Day, I woke up at 2.45am and I was at Churchill/Hiller Avenue polling station with my friend, a former CAPS United chairman by 6.05am.

There were 5 571 police, army and prisons officers registered to vote there and they represented almost half the Ward 7 electorate so I focussed most of my attention there.

Only 1 000 voters were allowed to vote per tent therefore Zec had set up six tents so I quickly assigned one election agent in each tent before driving to the next polling station. I had recruited 42 election agents including friends, campaign team members and others to help out but, as I expected, only half of them turned up. Election agents were supposed to work in two shifts at Alex Park School (A and B polling station), Hellenic Primary School (A and B), Belgravia Sports Club (A and B), Avondale Primary (A, B and AB), Avondale Infants School (polling station C), Strathaven (A and B) and the 6 Churchill Avenue tents.

The quietest stations were Belgravia because few people knew it was actually there, Alex Park School was so efficient they were done with their queue of voters before lunchtime and Strathaven was empty by afternoon too. Even though the city was quiet for the election day holiday, there was chaos at Avondale since most voters did not know their assigned polling station was and Zec did not send out clear directions. Polling station AB at Avondale School was only added the day before the election for voters on A or B whose surnames start with a letter that is higher up in the alphabet. The polling stations at Avondale Primary had one pen to mark the pinky finger each and the one at polling station B dried up so voters had to wait for a long time in the queue until another pen was found. It was very hot so I frantically messaged Zec officials to send a pen so voters would not be stuck waiting.

Meanwhile, the two other queues had dissipated by late afternoon. My roving agents and I went around bringing snacks for our polling agents. The boot of my car was full of bottled water and everyone was so thirsty in the heat, we ended up handing out water to anyone who asked.

The other issues for Avondale voters is that many of them did not know where Avondale Infants’ School on Oxford Road was. There was pandemonium at Churchill Road where long queues of uniformed and off-duty officers and their spouses were voting.

When I had posted election day information on a Ward 7 WhatsApp group, a resident asked if she could vote at Churchill Road since it was close to her home but voters in the Zimbabwe elections were assigned a specific polling station. When I finally went to vote at Hellenic Primary School mid-morning, I went to polling station A but they could not find my name because I was assigned to polling station B on my certificate of registration as a voter. Polling Station B was on the other side of the room in the school hall. I cast my vote for the presidential, National Assembly and city council ballot. It was the first time I have ever voted and I was so excited to get to vote for myself as councillor that after I finished dropping the ballots in the three boxes, I did a little dance which made the Zec officers laugh. I also got to check on my amazing election officers and polling stations in the school or sports club halls were much more comfortable than the tents at Churchill and Strathaven which were dark, hot during the day and freezing overnight. However, the rapport between my team and Zec was great.

Starting from election training with the Zec Mount Pleasant constituency officers held every Saturday at Mt Pleasant School for candidates and their chief election officers. I went with former councillor Michael Laban, my chief election officer. Zec was also helpful by providing training for election agents.

On election day, all eyes were on Churchill Avenue. In the morning, I ran into candidate Fadzayi Mahere surrounded by camera crews and foreign observers in Tent A while I was handing out refreshments to my agent. She was clearly the star candidate because she had a scrum of journalists following her everywhere.

I also learnt on this election campaign that, generally, women candidates do not necessarily support other female candidates.

While campaigning in Harare, I got a sense of the mood of the electorate. One time I was invited by the youth-focussed non-governmental organisation, YETT, to speak on a panel of female candidates which included Linda Masarira and a Zanu PF woman named Cele. This Cele lady said that if people think that things in Zimbabwe are so bad then why have they not left? The audience practically booed down that Cele woman for her comments and staunch Zanu PF line.

Then a week ago I went to a hotel to attend a Combined Harare Residents’ Association panel discussion with four candidates for Harare mayor. Only Jacob Mafume and councillor Herbert Gomba actually turned up so I ended being asked to join the panel. The audience was predominently MDC. Zimbabweans largely vote along party lines so being an independent was an uphill battle. My campaign team came up with strong branding, I set up a popular WhatsApp group and I am very prolific on social media. I also did a lot of panel discussions, media, interviews, television, radio and a well-received radio rally so my campaign was very strong but political independents are rare in Zimbabwe. Even the Povo Alliance of independents is alike a party.
Being non-aligned allowed me to talk to everybody and articulate my vision without having to toe a party line. I got to know people on the campaign trail. The MDC fielded Pastor Happymore Gotora from AFM Church on King George Road in Avondale for Ward 7 and he exuded confidence in his trademark suits each time we met. Unlike Zanu PF, the MDC has a very clear urban strategy. The outgoing mayor selected a list of candidates for town clerk and the next mayor of the city will be MDC again. Depending on the outcome of the national assembly elections, they could control local government then there is a likelihood of a return to executive mayors again.

My election night was a whirlwind of supplying meals to election agents and what I thought would be a brief count after voting ended at 7pm ended up being an all-nighter of waiting for results. I had driven around to appointing the one counting agent allowed per polling station then went back to Churchill Ave. The election agent in charge of Tent F located on its own on the south side of Churchill said he was ready to go home so I took a guy from Tent B to monitor the count. The Zec agent insisted that the agent who signed in that morning should be the same one to observe vote counting. I called the Zec constituency chief to approve the change in agents, but the woman on duty insisted that the presiding officer should approve that change, but the presiding officer was counting postal votes in Tent A.

There were only 41 postal votes but it took three hours for the presiding officer to come out and by then we were all miserable from standing outside in the cold.

The MDC crew, who all knew me by then, were saying that it was suspicious for Zec to take three hours because the vote counting had not even started yet at 10pm. The presiding officer finally came out and approved for my other election agent to monitor vote counting in that tent then I had to leave because candidates were not allowed to be inside during vote counting. I planned to stay up all night until all the polling stations had finished counting. We had 12 000 registered voters and I figured polling stations with few voters like Alex Park would finish voting quickly but I was mistaken. Hellenic Primary School had to recount again at 3am because an MDC election agent had dropped a hidden copy of the results from under her clothing when she was getting up for a bathroom break and finally they finished after 5am. Alex Park School finished even later because my election agents refused to let Zec officers reopen ballot boxes again after counting was done.

The last votes at Churchill Avenue came in after 9am. Even though campaigns are expensive, election day logistics was the biggest expense of the campaign and the most physically taxing. I need a holiday now!

Peters is a business and investment consultant. She can be contacted on Twitter: @debbienpeters and e-mail: deb.n.peters@gmail.com.

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