Save the credibility of Zimbabwe’s 2023 election
By Vivid Gwede
Zimbabwe’s 2023 harmonised elections are flawed and domestic and international players should rescue the polls from credibility collapse and dispute about the results. Disputed elections in Zimbabwe have perpetuated socioeconomic and political crises and the country cannot afford another disputed election.
Over the past 20 years, anyone who has voted in Zimbabwe’s general elections, observed elections, analysed election observer reports, or advocated for credible, free and fair elections can see where everything is headed.
With a joint African Union (AU) and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) observer mission having visited the country for a pre-election assessment two months before the polls, evaluating the situation is crucial.
The current election cycle ahead of polling on 23 August 2023 is spewing flaws which, if not resolved, could cause disputes, leading to adverse domestic and international consequences.
Current stage of the elections
The election cycle consists of three phases, namely the pre-voting, voting and post-voting periods. The pre-election and voting stages constitute the extended phase, which Zimbabwe is passing through, since about two years ago, and these two stages make or break the credibility of the elections. This submission compares developments in these two stages with the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, past election observer reports recommendations, and international best practices.
Notable at this point are irretrievable flaws – the proverbial spilt milk – and areas that with effort and political will, may be rectified and rescued.
The conclusion is that concerned domestic and international players – such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), Zimbabwean government, political parties, and civil society, diplomatic community, regional governments, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), COMESA and AU – should put the Zimbabwean electoral wheels back on the road. The recommendations made could be achieved through direct action and compliance, civil society advocacy, or diplomatic channels.
Composition and Independence of the Commission
During the pre-voting period, the election management body is expected to recruit independent, competent, and impartial staff. Within the past two years, the President of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa, appointed new ZEC commissioners. Two of these turned out to be relatives of senior ruling party officials, including a daughter of his party, the ruling Zanu-Pf’s vice president, Kembo Mohadi, who is also his former State vice president. This compounded the unresolved issue of ZEC personnel who are of disputed standing from previous elections. The appointments tainted the impartiality and independence of the commission. It will not be possible to change the personnel before the voting day and this significant flaw may be recorded and sealed as such beforehand.
Secrecy with and state of the Voters’ Roll
During the pre-voting period, ZEC conducted voter education, voter registration, voter inspection, and voter transfers as part of preparation of the voters’ roll. Section 21 (3) , (4) and (5) of the Electoral Act stipulate that ZEC should avail the voters’ roll either in printed or electronic format for a prescribed fee, which should not exceed the reasonable cost of providing it, to any person who requests it, and to political parties and accredited observers. Subsection (6) (a) mandates ZEC to give every nominated candidate a free electronic copy for the election they are contesting.
AU and EU observers, et al, to the 2018 harmonised elections noted the unavailability of the voters’ roll to parties and observers as a malpractice that needed to be rectified. The voter inspection exercise exposed errors on the voters’ roll associated with reorganisation and misplacement of voters after the decennial delimitation exercise. The delimitation report itself was error-prone with the computation of the final number of National Assembly constituencies disputed and opposed, including in court. To satisfy themselves that the voters’ roll was in a credible state and exercise their right to access it, opposition political parties and civil society have requested ZEC to release the voters’ roll to no avail.
At least two court appeals have failed in this regard. ZEC has insisted on providing a printed copy which is costly and unanalysable. The ruling party Zanu-PF’s silence on this issue gives the impression that it has access to the roll.
Secrecy with the voters’ roll is a significant flaw in light of previous electoral observer mission recommendations, the Constitution, and international best practice. ZEC could utilise the limited time left to rectify this foreseeable dispute and release the voters’ roll in an electronic format, which is affordable, searchable and analysable.
Freeness and Fairness of Political Environment
With the sitting of the nomination court on 21 June 2023, the country entered the voting period. Political parties in the country have kick-started their campaigns. The Constitution, Electoral Act and ZEC Code of Conduct provide that contestants should campaign freely without arbitrary restrictions on meetings, intimidation or violence. The main opposition, Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), claims police have banned more than 92 of its rallies – since the 26 March 2022 by elections for 28 National Assembly and 122 council seats.
This affects the credibility, freeness, and fairness of the election.
According to reports by civil society and the opposition party, the ruling party’s supporters have targeted and reportedly physically assaulted opposition supporters in a growing count of cases and areas, including in Hurungwe, Dangamvura, Bikita, and Chipinge. With the 2018 post-election period having witnessed violence which necessitated the Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry, this is a flashing warning light.
Violence presents the biggest red flag to the credibility of the election. Violence and banning rallies violate the Constitution’s Section 67 (2) (b) and (d) which state that Zimbabweans have a right to “campaign freely and peacefully for a political party or causes” including holding political gatherings. Notwithstanding this dent on freeness and fairness, the polls could be rescued by a halt in political violence, prosecution of perpetrators of political violence, and lifting of police restrictions on opposition meetings.
Inclusivity and Fairness of Nomination and Ballots
An inclusive and transparent process of candidate nomination and production of ballot papers safeguards citizens’ rights to contest in elections. Ahead of the 2023 election, ZEC hiked the candidate nomination fees for the presidential and National Assembly seats by 2,000 percent, to USD 20,000 and USD 1,000 respectively, against the background of a collapsing economy and hyperinflation.
Women candidates for presidential elections were particularly affected resulting in a drop of the number of candidates from four in 2018 to zero in 2023.
The fees have violated the Constitution’s Section 67 (3) (b) on citizens’ right to stand for public office. Suspicious cases of fielding of ‘double candidates’ alleged to have been fielded by the opposition CCC’s opponents, have affected half of National Assembly constituencies in the main opposition’s urban stronghold of the Harare metropolitan province. Of the 17 extra candidates in Harare, only four had participated in the CCC’s internal candidates selection contests, while attempts to have them removed by ZEC appear to be facing resistance.
Previous elections have also seen disputes around the design of the ballot paper, number of ballot papers, and lack of transparency on who prints the election material and where. ZEC should save the election from this potential dispute by being transparent, inclusive and consultative on the ballot papers.
Restricted Public Media Access
Equal access by candidates and availability of information about their campaigns through the public media underwrites fair elections. Recommendations from previous election observers, like the AU, advise that political parties should be given equal coverage in the public media in line with domestic laws and the Electoral Code. According to Section 239 (j) of the Constitution, ZEC can give instructions to people employed by the State to ensure free and fair conduct of an election.
The public media however remains closed from the opposition parties with coverage restricted to negative stories contrasted with positive coverage for the ruling party. This aberration from the Constitution, previous observer recommendations and international best practice can easily be cured through immediate compliance by the state television and radio broadcasters and newspapers.
Avenues to Rescue the Elections
While Zimbabwe’s elections have already recorded significant flaws, domestic and international players can rescue the elections from a credibility collapse and foreseeable disputes through direct action and compliance, civil society advocacy, or diplomatic channels.
The following interventions can save the elections:
Responsible, truthful and frank report back by the AU-COMESA observer mission on its pre-election assessment and urgent diplomatic interventions by the regional blocs.
Lawful and consensual framework for open and transparent election results transmission.
Immediate curbing of electoral violence, including enforcement of the Electoral Code of Conduct.
Granting fair access to all political parties on print and broadcast public media
Transparency with the design and printing of the ballot papers.
Allowing all political parties and candidates to freely hold rallies and campaign countrywide.
Domestic and international players should insist on the above to ZEC, political parties, and the Zimbabwean government.
To save the elections, the above recommendations need to be implemented immediately.
Vivid Gwede is a pro-democracy activist and media analyst with over a decade of experience working with civil society in Zimbabwe. His experience spans democracy, good governance, elections, and human rights.