ELECTIONS are the cornerstone of democracy and citizen participation in the governance processes at both national and local level.
Transparency International (Zimbabwe):Special correspondent
It is through the electoral processes that citizens elect political leaders and political parties of their choice to represent their views in key institutional spheres such as parliament and councils.
However, elections in Zimbabwe have since its Independence in 1980, been heavily contested and marred by allegations of vote rigging. Similarly, the 2018 elections were also fraught with a myriad of challenges which cumulated in a Constitutional Court challenge over the presidential election results.
Transparency, accountability, and integrity are the key pillars that give impetus for countries to hold elections based on universal values, standards and principles that underline political equality, impartial institutions, and transparent electoral cycle.
Most countries, Zimbabwe included, have celebrated the periodic holding of elections, while ignoring the fundamentals of electoral integrity.
While the current debates on the suspension of holding by-elections during this Covid-19 pandemic is pivotal, Transparency International Zimbabwe (TIZ) underlines that these debates should not exclude the already existing advocacy efforts aimed at ensuring electoral integrity.
It is without doubt that elections lose credibility and substance if conducted in an environment with unchecked cases of violence, rigging, political capture of institutions and unequal participation of all political actors.
It then becomes the role of the state and its institutions to facilitate the existence of the pillars that support electoral integrity. Elections conducted transparently and fairly do not only contribute to the legitimacy of the elections outcomes, but remain relevant in the anti-corruption agenda.
Understanding electoral integrity
There is no single, universal definition of the term electoral integrity. However, a widely acceptable definition is that posited by the Kofi Annan Foundation.
They define electoral integrity as: “. . . any election that is based on the democratic principles of universal suffrage and political equality as reflected in international standards and agreements, and is professional, impartial, and transparent in its preparation and administration throughout the electoral cycle.”
The general conduct of elections is provided for in international, regional, and national conventions and legislations respectively.
For instance, Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provides that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures”.
This forms the basis upon which the regional and national frameworks governing the conduct of elections are founded. In Africa, electoral processes are governed by the African Union Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa of 2002, which outline the following guiding principles for democratic elections:
l Democratic elections are the basis of the authority of any representative government;
l Regular elections constitute a key element of the democratisation process and therefore, are essential ingredients for good governance, the rule of law, the maintenance and promotion of peace, security, stability and development;
l The holding of democratic elections is an important dimension in conflict prevention, management and resolution; and
l Democratic elections should be conducted freely and fairly, under democratic constitutions and in compliance with supportive legal instruments, under a system of separation of powers that ensures in particular, the independence of the judiciary at regular intervals, as provided for in national constitutions and by impartial, all-inclusive competent accountable electoral institutions staffed by well-trained personnel and equipped with adequate logistics.
These guiding principles are confirmed in section 155 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, which outlines the principles of electoral system. Section 155(1) of the Constitution provides as follows:
l Elections, which must be held regularly, and referendums, to which this Constitution applies must be — peaceful, free and fair; conducted by secret ballot; based on universal adult suffrage and equality of votes; and free from violence and other electoral malpractices.
In this instance, section 155 of the Constitution as read with the Electoral Act (Chapter 2:13) emphasises the principles of electoral integrity.
Elections are regarded as free when “they are conducted in a manner that allows all those entitled to vote, to register and vote freely in expression of their choices”.
Furthermore, elections are considered to be fair when all registered political parties have equal rights to contest the elections, campaign for voter support and hold meetings and rallies.
A question to pose to the readers therefore, would be: to what extent do elections in Zimbabwe abide by the supreme law of the land in as far as promoting electoral integrity?
TIZ posits that elections in Zimbabwe fall short of the principles of electoral integrity. We will discuss this in detail in future digests.
Nexus between corruption, polls
Democratic states and institutions are characterised by transparency, accountability, and public participation in fundamental processes, which then results in minimal levels of corruption.
On the other hand, non-democratic states are characterised by a lack of transparency and accountability and shrinking civic and political space to hold those in power accountable.
This results in endemic corruption coupled with impunity. In such states, electoral process also becomes an enabler for corruption to thrive, as evidenced by illicit political party financing, fraud, vote buying and rigging among other electoral malpractices.
In the case of Zimbabwe, the suspension of by-elections through Statutory Instrument (SI) 225A on account of Covid-19 is a subject of debate in Zimbabwe. Civil society organisations such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) have rightfully queried the selective application of the law in democratic processes after the government allowed the public hearings for the 2021 National Budget to go ahead despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
Therefore, TIZ is of the view that the recent suspension of by-elections under the pretext of public health concerns should be reviewed and interrogated on the basis of its long-term implications on good governance and the fight against corruption. Such suspension without offering an alternative for citizens to hold the executive accountable potentially weakens legitimacy, increases perceptions of capture and waters down institutional trust. This is especially so, where fundamental rights such as the freedom of expression, freedom to demonstrate and petition and access to information have been curtailed.
Furthermore, at a time when Members of Parliament and local authority councillors are being recalled from their duties, citizens should be given a chance to choose their representatives at both levels through a fair and free election.
As it stands, both the recalls and the unilateral delays in the holding of elections presents a challenge to the electoral processes and citizens are justified in questioning the existence of electoral integrity in Zimbabwe.
Both parliament and local councillors play a crucial role in the anti-corruption agenda as they ensure that the implementing agencies of government at both local and national level are held accountable at all times.
Furthermore, the role of parliament in the development of anticorruption policies or laws should be emphasised. When citizens are involved in democratic processes institutions of governance are strengthened and legitimised by trust. Without public trust it is extremely difficult for the government to deliver on its mandate in the fight against corruption. Once the morality of trust is not fulfilled, institutions fail.
TIZ underlines that elections remain a key democratic process. However, elections should not be conducted as a box ticking exercise without incorporating the principles of electoral integrity as guaranteed in various international and regional instruments to which Zimbabwe is a State Party to, including its own constitution.
Evidence and perceptions of illicit political financing, vote rigging, violence, and political capture of key institutions such as the state media and the election management body undermine the legitimacy of elections in Zimbabwe.
Therefore, there is need for both state and non-state stakeholders to continuously review current policies, laws and institutional frameworks that pertain to elections, as well as for the development of collective actions that promote electoral transparency and integrity.