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Zesn reiterates call for electoral reforms

Zesn ELECTORAL WATCHDOGS
IN 2020, by-elections to fill in vacancies in wards and constituencies left vacant as a result of recalls and deaths were indefinitely suspended on account of Covid-19.

Following a prolonged period of suspension, on  January 9, 2022, President Mnangagwa promulgated Statutory Instrument (SI) 2 of 2022, proclaiming a date for the holding of by-elections.

On March 26,  by-elections were held to fill 28 parliamentary and 122 local authority seats. Because of their large number, the by-elections attracted a lot of interest, with some describing them as a ‘mini-general election’ and rehearsal of the 2023 harmonised elections.

Prior to the holding of the by-elections, contestations over the name ‘MDC Alliance’, which the main opposition used in 2018 resulted in the faction of the MDC Alliance under the leadership of Nelson Chamisa announcing the formation of a new party known as the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

Many candidates in the March 26 by-elections, who contested on the ticket of the CCC were elected Members of Parliament for the MDC Alliance in the 2018 harmonised elections.

On poll day, the by-elections were generally well administered by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec). Among other things, reports from Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) observers indicate that most polling stations opened on time for voting; polling stations had the materials required for voting, such as the voters roll and indelible ink marker; and voters’ fingers were being checked for ink before they were allowed to vote.

At most polling stations, the voters’ roll was displayed outside one of the administrative reform that Zec started implementing post the 2018 harmonised elections in the by-elections held in 2018.

Posting of the voters’ roll outside polling stations is a good practice that enables voters to check whether their name will be on the voters’ roll before voting day and ascertain where exactly they will vote from thus preventing instances of voters being redirected.

Exceptions included Gwai Primary School in Mberengwa South Constituency. Results were posted outside polling stations for the public to see . At some polling stations, Covid-19 vaccination teams were reported to be on site.

The by-elections, however, still revealed areas where electoral reforms are needed ahead of the country’s harmonised elections in 2023. Elections should be peaceful, free, fair, and credible.

There should be equal enjoyment of rights and freedoms by all electoral actors, including the freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

The opposition suffered State-imposed restrictions in its campaigns for the by-elections, for example the stringent conditions set in relation to CCC’s rally in Highfield that did not seem to apply to the ruling party’s campaigns.

Among other things, the CCC was instructed to control the behaviour of its members before, during and after the rally, to observe Covid-19 regulations outlined by the government; to ensure that there would not be toyi toying, convoying of vehicles of people chanting slogans and singing and disseminating hateful and defaming information; and not to bus its supporters from other constituencies.

The Police indicated that any deviation would result in the dispersing of the crowd. On the day of the rally, roadblocks were mounted with the Police seemingly determined to block supporters of CCC from getting to the venue of the rally.

Ahead of the by-elections, language that has the potential to incite party supporters was used by political party leaders, for example Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, who threatened that the CCC would be crushed like lice and CCC’s candidate for Mkoba National Assembly seat, Amos Chibaya, who urged party youths to retaliate when violence erupted at the party’s Kwekwe rally, perpetrated by suspected Zanu PF members.

While election-violence was not widespread in the pre-election environment, the witnessed cases of violence are worrying, particularly the one that resulted in a fatality as a supporter of the CCC, Mboneni Ncube , was killed by suspected Zanu PF supporters at a rally in Kwekwe.

Political parties’ leaders should refrain from violence, messages that incite hatred/violence and should always urge their supporters to remain peaceful and not engage in rogue behavior.

There is also need for Zec to be empowered to deal with cases of violence by sanctioning political parties that perpetrate violence.

There was evident bias in the media coverage of political parties’ campaigns, particularly in the State-controlled broadcast media. For example, Zanu PF rallies were widely covered on TV and radio, far more than the opposition. In the interest of fairness, there is need to ensure equitable coverage of all political parties in the public media.

Vote buying was witnessed in a number of constituencies as contesting candidates sought to unduly influence the electorate to vote in their favour.

There is need for provisions in the law unequivocally defining, and to sanction, vote buying behaviour by political parties and candidates. Voter education should also address vote buying in elections.

Zec also came under attack with accusations of tampering with the voters’ roll. In the interest of transparency and to instill confidence and trust in the public, the commission should engage external auditors to conduct an independent audit of the voters roll.

The voters’ rolls for National Assembly by-elections closed on January 9, two days after the proclamation of the by-elections by the President while for local authority elections, voters’ rolls closed at the time when vacancies occurred in wards.

As a result, some voters were disenfranchised, finding themselves not eligible to elect a councillor when they could vote for a Member of Parliament on Election Day.

This is especially likely given that there was no voter education meant to inform the electorate about these legislative provisions for the closure of voters’ rolls.

In some cases, for example at Glen View 3 Shops, some voters were turned away because they had registered after the cut-off date. For future elections, there is need to revisit the law, in particular Sections 26 A and 121A (3) of the Electoral Act that speak to the closure of voters’ rolls for National Assembly and local authority elections, respectively.

On Election Day, there were reports indicative of possible community coercion. There was high turnout as well as high vote share for a single party at multiple rural polling stations across Murewa South and Mutasa South, when compared to their respective constituency turnout and vote shares.

People queue up to vote at a polling station in Harare on March 26.

For Murewa South, the average turnout was approximately 49%, but for these polling stations turnout was 60% and above. Similarly, for Mutasa South the average turnout was approximately 35%, but for these polling stations turnout was over 50%.

For both constituencies the vote share for Zanu PF was over 90% — much higher than for other polling stations. This pattern calls into question whether voters were able to freely participate in the process and if the results truly reflect their preferences.

Reports of block voting were received where voters would first congregate at the homestead of a traditional leader from where they would be shepherded to polling stations.

Given the history of the partisan involvement of traditional leaders in elections in Zimbabwe, these reports raise fears of the electorate being denied the opportunity to freely choose candidates or parties to vote for without any interference or undue influence .

There were also some reports of suspiciously high numbers of assisted voters, particularly from Binga. For example, by around 1400 hours on Election Day, over 80 voters had been assisted to vote at Mangani Business Centre tent A polling station.

Most of these assisted voters were accompanied by traditional leaders to the polling stations. By end of day, observers in some constituencies had reported that many individuals had requested assistance in casting their ballots, including Epworth (59%), Chivi South (36%) and Binga North (59%).

To avoid possible abuse, there is need to limit the use of the assisted voting facility to cases where it is genuinely required and necessary.

Voter turnout was also generally low. Youth voters were particularly conspicuous by their absence. Low voter turnout has become a characteristic feature of elections, mostly by-elections, in Zimbabwe, pointing to the need for extensive voter education campaigns intended to mobilise voters to vote in by-elections.

This is particularly necessary for the local authority elections, which many do not regard as important as the National Assembly and presidential elections.

There were also cases where voters were turned away and not allowed to vote because they did not have valid identification documents. The voters brought driver’s licences that cannot be used as valid identification for purposes of voting in elections.

This points to the need for widespread voter education to ensure that voters are fully aware of voting eligibility requirements and lack of adequate voter education.

In view of the issues observed in the by-elections, and the broader electoral reforms that the network and other actors have been calling for, contained in Zesn’s 2018 petition to Parliament, Zesn’s Compendium of Election Observer Missions’ Recommendations, and the Comprehensive Electoral Amendment Bill that the network and other civil society organisations submitted to Parliament, Zesn reiterates the need for electoral reforms.

There is need for political will on the part of the government to institute and implement political and electoral reforms. Political parties with representation in Parliament should push for comprehensive electoral reforms, specifically with regards to electoral laws.

The Zec should institute and implement administrative reforms to ensure transparency, public trust, and confidence in its administration of future elections.

Zimbabwe Election Support Network is a coalition of 36 non-governmental organisations formed to co-ordinate activities pertaining to elections. The major focus of the network is to promote democratic processes in general and free and fair elections in particular.

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