Editor’s Note: Zimbabwe August 2023 elections: the missed opportunities
On August 23, 2023, Zimbabwe heads for a general election once again, five years on from the last one in July of 2018. Like many of its elections held after 2000, the last election was held under a heavily skewed electoral field, tilted in favour of the incumbent ruling ZANU PF party, in power since independence in 1980. Of course, as has become the norm, the last election in 2018 was disputed, and despite ZANU PF going on to form a government, the spectre of contested governmental legitimacy has lingered on.
Interestingly, Zimbabwe’s elections have attracted wide and far-reaching attention, notably since 2000 when the convergence of numerous political, economic and social factors resulted in a heightened contestation for state power. With the rise of a formidable opposition movement post-independence, the ruling ZANU PF party-state has had to resort to increasing authoritarian tactics to retain state power – however, within both the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) governance frameworks, this has had to be through an electoral process.
All the elections since then have been characterised by various irregularities and many of these have been flagged by numerous stakeholders including SADC and the African Union (AU) which have consistently sent Election Observer Missions (EOMs) and religiously passed reports with recommendations for improving the integrity of elections based on their empirical findings. These have seldom been heeded by the Harare administration. The last election in 2018 was no exception.
Civil society actors as well as other stakeholders have hazarded the deteriorating integrity of electoral processes in Zimbabwe, with many warning that contested elections are likely to stall any prospects of economic recovery. Just recently, the African Development Bank (AfDB) President Dr. Adesina warned how Zimbabwe’s quest to deal with its debt challenge with international creditors rested on its ability to implement far-reaching governance reforms, including the holding of credible elections. The AfDB reckons, and rightly so, that the debt crisis is a major hindrance to economic recovery.
However, with the 31 May proclamation of the election date, all hope for reform towards creating some semblance of evenness of the electoral playing field and improving the integrity of our elections dissipated into thin air. The AfDB was leading one such effort under its Structured Dialogue Platform (SDP). Parliament was still in the process of amending the Electoral Act. The proclamation of the election date essentially means that changes to any legislation affecting elections will have no effect on the impending August 23 election. What therefore is apparent is that Zimbabwe will go into these elections under a framework more skewed that what we saw in 2018. This is being exacerbated by what has been an appetite by the government to further shrink the remaining civic and democratic space through both legal and extra-legal means. The worsening economic climate also puts an interesting twist to the whole situation.
Given the foregoing, we bring you this edition of the Zimbabwe Briefing, which assesses Zimbabwe’s pre-electoral environment and analyses some of the missed opportunities, just over a month before the highly anticipated plebiscite.
The SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections emphasise the need for full citizen participation in the political process; freedom of association; equal opportunity to exercise the right to vote and be voted for; and voter education as some of the key principles for conducting democratic elections.
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights also refers to the right of every citizen to take part in the conduct of public affairs and to the right to vote in elections: “guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”
Based on this, it is clear that genuine democratic elections require an environment conducive for respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression and personal security and safety, all of which are essential conditions for the effective exercise of the right to vote.
This edition reveals that the playing field in Zimbabwe is far from being level, and this is in violation of the SADC Principles and Guidelines for the Conduct of Democratic Elections and the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. In many ways, some of the shortcomings to be seen in the electoral environment go against the Constitution of Zimbabwe. Above all, the insistence of the Government to proceed under such circumstances is a glaring betrayal of the promise of 1980; without doubt, the promise of independence and the primacy of ‘one wo/man, one vote’ is under serious threat.
We believe that elections should not be held for the purpose of fulfilling a constitutional necessity but should be conducted in a manner that allows for full expression, freedom from intimidation and fear, equal access to sources of information and guaranteed peaceful transfer of power.