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Is Zimbabwe headed for yet another disputed poll?

With barely 2 days to go to elections, the political temperatures in Zimbabwe are reaching a boiling point. At the centre of it all is a dispute over transparency and fairness in the running of the first post-Mugabe plebiscite. Revolving around the voters’ roll, ballot paper design, printing, storage and distribution, and more recently, postal voting, the dispute pits the country’s electoral management body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) against the country’s main opposition political grouping, the MDC Alliance.

The positions of ZEC and the MDC Alliance seem to be irreconcilable. For the ZEC boss Justice Priscilla Chigumba, nothing short of an earthquake can stop the 30 July election. On the other hand, for Nelson Chamisa, the MDC Alliance presidential candidate had previously threatened that the poll will not happen if their demands are not met, but the party has since made a U-turn.

The fall of Robert Mugabe and the military-engineered rise of Emmerson Mnangagwa as president in November 2017 ignited hope for a new start in Zimbabwe. This was emboldened by Mnangagwa’s ‘new dispensation’ gospel of a free, fair and credible election, anchored on his desperate quest for legitimacy. By opening doors for international observer missions to observe the election, Mnangagwa appeared to be ‘walking the free election talk.’ However as the clock ticks towards Election Day, the question whether a free, fair and credible election is still possible in Zimbabwe has gained traction. On the spotlight is the integrity of ZEC as an institution, and that of its chair, Justice Chigumba. Described in some quarters as ‘the biggest threat to electoral legitimacy,’ ZEC’s integrity has been seriously impaired and discredited.

The controversy surrounding ZEC is deep-seated. Chigumba’s appointment as chair was as controversial as the rise of Mnangagwa who appointed her. Like Mnangagwa who became president after the ‘forced’ resignation of Mugabe, Chigumba took over ZEC following what many believe was the forced resignation of her predecessor, Justice Rita Makarau, soon after the November military intervention. The excitement about the prospects of a new Mugabe-free Zimbabwe rendered many oblivious to the possible motivations of a new president in appointing a new ZEC boss with a few months to a crucial national election. However, it took the opaqueness with which ZEC is running this election to bring back to the spotlight questions around Chigumba’s appointment. A picture of her wearing the scarf that has become Mnangangwa’s trademark went viral and generated much controversy. There have also been unsubstantiated allegations of her sexual relationship with a member of Mnangagwa’s cabinet.

Coming to the bolts and nuts of running the election, ZEC have been found wanting in many respects. For instance, the voters’ roll was not freely accessible before nomination and when it was finally made available, it reportedly had many flaws, the highlight of which are reportedly numerous ghost voters. Leaping from one controversy to another, ZEC torched a storm by designing a presidential ballot paper that puts Mnangagwa’s name at the top of the second column in flagrant violation of the dictates of the Electoral Act. Apart from this Zimabwe is headed for an election with an Electoral Act that is not fully compliant to the Constitution – providing the first area of electoral contestation. This was to be followed by the Bulawayo postal vote scandal where police officers were allegedly forced to vote in the presence of their superiors, compromising the secrecy of their vote. How ZEC responded to these concerns does not instill confidence in their commitment to transparency and fairness in the conduct of elections.

In the circumstances, prospects for a free, fair and credible election whose outcome is undisputed are fast diminishing, and with them the hope for a new political and economic dispensation that Zimbabweans at home and abroad nursed since the fall of Mugabe last year.

The MDC Alliance has not been quiet. They have protested, demonstrated and petitioned ZEC to no avail. Recently, they had applied to stage a vigil at ZEC offices until election day, and they were denied by the police. In fact the police have mounted a barricade at the ZEC Head Office in Harare. The opposition has reportedly approached SADC to intervene in what that they call a stalemate in Zimbabwe.

All these factors raise a number of pertinent questions; is Zimbabwe headed for yet another disputed election? Is there anything SADC can do to save the situation? With the dispute cast as one between ZEC, on paper an independent constitutional commission, and the MDC Alliance, what framework exists for SADC to intervene? What are the likely socio-economic and political implications of another disputed election on national stability and human security, and by extension, on regional peace and security?

With less than 2 days before the poll, little can be done to restore the people’s confidence in ZEC and the electoral process. With the opposition mobilizing its supporters to ‘defend’ their vote, prospects for civil unrest are high if the Alliance loses. Given its proximity, and the experience of the past eighteen years since the disputed 2000 poll, South Africa must be watching events in Zimbabwe with keen interest.

About the Author: Sibanengi Ncube is a PhD Fellow in the International Studies Group, University of the Free State in South Africa. He is also an Associate of the Institute of Public Affairs in Zimbabwe (IPAZIM) and a Founding Trustee of the Parliamentary Monitoring Trust-Zimbabwe (PMTZ).

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