Zesn position on electoral reforms

ELECTORAL outcomes have in the past been heavily contested in Zimbabwe, chief among the reasons being that they have not embraced comprehensive principles and standards for the conduct of democratic elections.

Over the years, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) has continued to advocate for electoral reform in order to promote free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, in line with its mission and vision. After the 2018 Harmonised Elections, Zesn compiled recommendations made by Election Observer Missions (EOMs), petitioned Parliament on the reforms and then submitted a Draft Comprehensive Electoral Amendment Bill to the Parliament.

Zesn has also worked on the Political Parties Regulation Bill and the Political Parties (Finance) Amendment Bill, which were then merged into one Bill, the Political Parties Regulation and Financing Bill, and the organisation is currently engaging political parties and other stakeholders on it. Zesn continues to engage stakeholders on these and other electoral reform issues.

Outstanding issues

There are many issues that remain outstanding from the previous electoral cycles, which need to be addressed before the 2023 elections.

The need to strengthen the independence of the electoral management body (EMB), in this case the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), in order to increase trust and confidence in the institution, which affects perceptions of the freeness and fairness.

The lack of stakeholders’ confidence in the EMB will have implications on perceptions about the freeness and fairness of the 2023 elections. Perceptions of stakeholders will always matter, whether or not in actual fact the election would have been free and fair.

Elections do not only need to be free and fair, but have to be perceived as such. Therefore, the Zec should address this before the 2023 elections. In addition to that, other administrative reforms relating to the work of the Zec must be instituted. These include an expanded responsibility for regulating voter registration and the need to align Zec procedures with the Constitution.

This must be done to ensure that voting, counting, and aggregation of results is simple, verifiable, secure, and transparent. Zec could invest in integrated systems that allow for one gadget to be used for multiple purposes such as enrolling voters, voter verification on Election Day and results transmission, which must be done in real time.

Zesn is also calling for the institution of political party regulation and financing in order to promote transparency in the affairs of political parties.

This will address excessively disproportionate variances in campaign funds between parties and/candidates and will also require the disclosure of sources, as well as auditing of the use of campaign funds.

Further through political party’s registration and regulation, political parties will be compelled to have a membership and composition of its executive body that must reflect regional and ethnic diversity, gender balance, and representation of the youth, minorities and any marginalised groups.

The need for the improvement of the electoral legal framework and its implementation before 2023 can never be overemphasised.

There is consensus that what is often lacking is its implementation in good faith. Despite the revised Electoral Act of May, some issues still need to be addressed by finding provision in the law. To this end, Zesn and other CSOs produced a ‘Comprehensive Draft Electoral Amendment Bill’ to address issues arising from observations.

Proposed amendments are meant to contribute both to free and fair elections. Zesn has also produced the Political Parties Regulation and Financing Bill, which is meant to ensure transparency in the activities of political parties.

The participation and representation of special groups in electoral processes, particularly women, the youth and people with disabilities (PWDs) has traditionally been very low due to a number of systemic barriers that they encounter.

There is still need to continue working on ensuring gender parity as provided for in the Constitution, adequate representation of the youth and PWDs, starting at the level of political parties.

Media coverage is very important to ensure that all political parties and candidates are treated equitably in the news media during election time.

The law requires that all media outlets, both print and electronic, ensure that all political parties and candidates are treated equitably in terms of the timing and prominence of coverage accorded to them in the news media.

In the past, the ruling party has often enjoyed the benefits of incumbency as, not only activities of ruling party government officials, but party issues, are receiving media coverage. Plurality of the media would also be key to ensure free and fair elections.

Improvements in voter registration and the voters roll are also key as they address issues of universal suffrage, under registration, disenfranchisement of certain groups and allow for the timely provision of the voters roll to stakeholders in an auditable format.

There is evidence of under-registration in urban areas such as Harare and Bulawayo, and of certain demographic groups like the youth and PhDs. This needs to be addressed to ensure the fairness of the 2023 elections.

A voter registration blitz and targeted voter registration in under registered areas will go a long way in addressing these gaps. The ideal situation would be that of as many voters as possible, out of the total of potential registrants, registering.  Those put on the exclusion list should be notified and have an opportunity to easily rectify any errors.

Both the provisional and the final to be timely availed in auditable and analysable formats. The voters’ roll must also be subjected to independent external auditing commissioned by the Zec in the spirit of building stakeholders’ confidence and trust in electoral processes.

The right to vote must also be extended to those in the diaspora, the hospitalised and the detained citizens. Section 67 (3) (a) of the Zimbabwe Constitution postulates that every Zimbabwean citizens who is 18 years old or above has the right to vote in all elections and referendums, and to do so in secret.

Despite the significant numbers of citizens who fall into the above stated categories, there are no provisions at law that extends voting rights to those in the diaspora, those imprisoned and those hospitalised on Election Day. Several alternatives can be looked into in order to enfranchise these populations.

For example, for diaspora voting Zimbabwe can consider model based on postal voting, which is already being implemented but restricted to diplomats abroad. Postal voting can be combined with personal voting especially in countries where Zimbabwe has a large population base such as South Africa and England. Zimbabwean embassies and other secure venues in these countries can operate as polling stations on the polling day.

The liberalisation of civic and voter education is also very crucial, to make it more inclusive, comprehensive, continuous, targeted and focus on addressing misinformation and malpractices. Civic and voter education must address the needs of all electors, the illiterate, first time voters and so on. Voter education must also be linked to the secrecy of the vote.

Another issue of contention has been that of electoral boundaries, where there is a need to address issues relating to the existing electoral boundaries which do not provide for fair elections and do not comply with universal best practices.

Electoral boundaries have implications for the fairness of outcomes of an election. Existing boundaries violate the principles of fair elections, for example they do not guarantee equality of voting strength. Hopefully the delimitation exercise that we are anticipating soon will sufficiently address these issues relating to electoral boundaries and comply with universal principles without gerrymandering, which is the manipulation of electoral boundaries to favor an individual or party.

The outcome of the delimitation process should, as much as possible, closely reflect a match between the number of constituencies in a province and the population of those potentially eligible to vote as provided for in the census data.

It is for this reason why it is important for the census process to precede the delimitation. Thus the voter registration process should be very comprehensive and capture as many potential registrants as possible.

Vote-buying and abuse of state resources continues to be rampant with reports of partisan aid distribution. There is need for guidelines for distribution of aid and measures to deal with the abuse of State resources as well as the misuse of the advantage of incumbency.

Much still needs to be done in terms of political justice. There is a need to ensure that judicial appointments are free from political influence. In addition, effective administrative complaints mechanisms within Zec for the addressing of voters’ concerns beyond voter registration need to be instituted.

This should also be complemented by putting in place other electoral dispute mechanisms to ensure peaceful resolution of election-related disputes throughout the electoral cycle, including dealing with cases of post-election retribution.

Multi-party liaison committees should be institutionalised and made a permanent feature of the electoral process for the addressing of issues between political parties and Zec. Effective dispute resolution mechanisms will ensure the timely redress of political offences.

Traditional leaders play a very crucial role not only as custodians of culture and community values, but in electoral processes as well. However, in the past they have been known to use their influence to intimidate or coerce the rural population into supporting the ruling party. There is a need for an enforceable Code of Conduct to bar traditional leaders from partisan political participation in elections.

Lastly, the political environment itself has remained in a state of flux, not conducive for free and fair elections. State-party conflation continues as evidenced by perceptions of the lack of judicial independence. The replacement of the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) by the Maintenance of Peace and  Order Bill (Mopa)  has been criticised on the basis that some provisions of Mopa are in fact more repressive than its predecessor.

Free, fair and comprehensive elections will contribute to peace, prosperity and the advancement of democracy in Zimbabwe. It is my humble submission having observed a number of elections in Zimbabwe and beyond, that if the above issues are addressed, this will lead to significant improvement in the legislative, administrative and political environment of elections in Zimbabwe.

  • Koga is the Zimbabwe Election Support Network’s Advocacy for Electoral Reform Officer and for additional information or clarification she can be reached on heather@zesn.net or info@zesn.net. This article presents some of the recommendations that her organisation is advocating for before the 2023 harmonised elections.