In earlier Election Watches we summarised reports and recommendations on the recent general election made by the Eminent Persons Observer Mission, the EU Observer Mission and the IRI/NDI Zimbabwe International Election Observation Mission. In this Election Watch we shall do the same for the next main international observer group to issue a report, namely the Commonwealth Observer Group.
Who is/was the Commonwealth Observer Group
The Commonwealth regularly monitors elections held by its member States, including Britain, to ensure they meet democratic standards. Zimbabwe left the Commonwealth in 2003 and the organisation did not send election observers after that until this year, when the Government invited it to observe the July harmonised elections. The invitation was accepted because Zimbabwe has applied for readmission to the Commonwealth and the observers’ report on the election would be considered in assessing the country’s commitment to Commonwealth values.
The Commonwealth Observer Group to Zimbabwe was led by a former President of Ghana, Mr John Dramani Mahama, and comprised 23 eminent persons from round the world, seven of them from Africa. In addition, there was a nine-member support team from the Commonwealth Secretariat.
Methodology and Extent of Observation by the Group
The Group’s approach to election observation was based on guidelines adopted at a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Harare in 1991 [updated April 2018].
A pre-election assessment mission was conducted in Zimbabwe from 2nd to 7th June to assess the electoral environment. The Group itself arrived in Harare on the 23rd July and stayed until the 6th August. It spent the first four days meeting persons and bodies involved in the election, including the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission [ZEC], the Commissioner-General of Police and representatives of political parties, the media and civil society organisations [CSOs] as well as other observer missions. Members of the Group were deployed to all 10 provinces from the 27th July to the 1st August where they met interested parties and witnessed polling and the counting of votes.
The Group’s Report
The Group’s report is nearly 90 pages long and covers the political background to the election, the legal and administrative framework under which it was conducted, voter participation particularly participation by women, youth and persons with disabilities, the election campaigns, voting and the counting of votes, and the announcement of results. It also covers the Group’s observation of the immediate post-election period. On each of these topics the Group makes recommendations, which are summarised later in this Election Watch.
The Group’s Conclusion
The Group summarised its observations in a letter to the Commonwealth Secretary-General which is reproduced in the report. The Group’s conclusion is contained in the following paragraphs of the letter:
“Important gains were made in these elections. The markedly improved pre-election environment, where all parties were generally able to campaign freely, is to be commended. The polls on 30 July were conducted in a peaceful manner, and were well managed and transparent. For the first time, four out of a record 23 presidential candidates were women – although more needs to be done to improve women’s political representation in Zimbabwe.
However, the acute bias of the state media in favour of the governing party, the ZEC’s limitations in the implementation of its mandate as identified in this report, persistent allegations of intimidation reported to the Group and the unfair use of incumbency privileges, unlevelled the playing field in favour of the governing party. The post-election violence, which resulted in fatalities, and the behaviour of security forces, marred this phase of the elections. For these reasons, the Commonwealth Observer Group is unable to endorse all aspects of the process as credible, inclusive and peaceful.”
The conclusion can be summed up as: the elections were much better than before, but still not quite good enough.
The Group was clearly influenced by what happened after polls closed. Its report on the pre-election environment and on the casting of votes on polling day is generally favourable. It found the counting of votes at polling stations to be generally fair, though cumbersome and carried out by exhausted polling officials. The Group was more critical of the collating of votes and the announcement of results: according to the report the process was “slow and cumbersome” and ZEC’s lack of transparency “only seemed to promote suspicion, mistrust and allegations of rigging”. The Group was obviously disconcerted by the events that occurred thereafter, the killing of reportedly unarmed people by the Army, the police raid on opposition party headquarters, and the attempt to stop a press conference by an opposition leader. It seems to have been these events that led the Group to say it could not endorse all aspects of the electoral process as credible, inclusive and peaceful.
The Group’s Recommendations
The recommendations made by the Group are set out at the end of each chapter in its report. They are as follows:
I. Electoral Framework and Electoral Administration
- Consideration should be given to the adoption of a Political Party Act to regulate the activities of political parties and hold them accountable, thereby strengthening Zimbabwe’s democracy.
- The Electoral Act should be amended to align it with the Constitution:
- by requiring the results of the Presidential Election to be declared without undue delay, and more precisely within 72 hours.
- by removing the provision that empowers a court to prohibit persons convicted of electoral offences from voting in future elections. The right to vote is guaranteed by the Constitution.
- to allow ZEC to report directly to the National Assembly rather than through a Minister.
- to secure ZEC’s funding from the Consolidated Revenue Fund [presumably as a statutory appropriation- Veritas].
- The variance in population size across Zimbabwe’s constituencies was an issue of concern to some stakeholders. To ensure fairness and equal access, a review of electoral boundaries should be undertaken in an inclusive, non-partisan and transparent process, with a view to standardising the numbers of voters across constituencies to ensure fair and equal representation.
- To avoid operational or implementation delays, confusion and potentially conflicting provisions, it is international good electoral practice that there should not be substantive changes to the legal and electoral framework 6 to 12 months prior to an election.
- ZEC should review its procedures and practices, especially for polling day, to align them with Section 156(b) of the Constitution, to ensure that the voting, counting and aggregation of results “is simple, verifiable, secure and transparent”.
- In order to address any perceptions of partiality, consideration should be given to amending the Constitution to stipulate that appointments of the judiciary and its funding are free from political influence.
- In order to ensure expeditious treatment of electoral disputes, adequate funding of judicial and non-judicial dispute resolution mechanisms should be assured, training should be provided for judicial officers in electoral law and practice (including comparative and best practice), judicial caseloads should be managed appropriately, a fast-tracked procedure should be introduced, and the appropriate use of available recourses should be proactively promoted.
- To promote transparency and a level playing field, ZEC should adopt a more communicative and collaborative approach with the various election stakeholders.
Participation and Inclusion
- The quotas prescribed for women under section 124 of the Constitution should be negotiated by the new parliament before its expiration in 2023. For example, in Uganda and Bangladesh, quotas for women are negotiated in parliament every five years before their expiration.
- Given the low participation of women in contested seats, consideration should be given to extending the quota system to the Senate and local authorities.
- Consideration should be given to the creation of women-only seats. The 60 seats could be contested as safe constituencies by women, similar to the situation that pertains in jurisdictions such as Bangladesh and Uganda.
- Political parties should adopt and implement special measures, such as voluntary quotas, to achieve gender balance within their own decision-making structures and processes.
- In view of the high levels of intra-party violence and hate speech towards women candidates, and physical and psychological violence against women in the election, political parties should consider establishing intra-party referral systems that allow women to report cases of violence within political parties.
- To alleviate the financial burden on women seeking to contest elections and to encourage more women to run for office in Zimbabwe, political parties should consider ways of supporting women candidates, including the establishment of special funds.
- Consideration should be given to reducing the minimum age for candidates in local authority, National Assembly and Senate elections to18 years, as in other Southern African countries.
- Consideration should also be given to a quota system for youth representatives (aged 18 to 35) to local authority and National Assembly elections, as in other jurisdictions like Rwanda.
- Political parties should create empowered youth-led wings and youth caucuses, designed to involve young people actively in policy and decision-making.
- Because young people are liable to be involved in electoral and political violence, greater use should be made of peace pledges by CSOs and youth organisations to encourage them to shun political violence.
- CSOs and ZEC should engage in voter education programmes throughout the electoral cycle, targeting young voters from the age of 16. This could increase electoral literacy.
- Concerted efforts are needed to ensure that more youths are registered as voters and participate in the electoral process.
Persons with disabilities
- Legal provisions for the participation of persons with disabilities should be implemented with adequate resources and effective enforcement, and persons with disabilities should be actively involved in plans and programmes for their participation.
- It is not enough for persons with disabilities to cast their vote on Election Day. Deliberate efforts should be made to facilitate their participation as candidates for elective office, as well as their participation as polling officials, local observers, party agents, media monitors and so forth.
- The Government and political parties should make their structures more inclusive for persons with disabilities, particularly women.
- More electoral information, education and communication materials should be tailored for persons with disabilities, using various formats including Braille and audio.
- ZEC should invest in comprehensive training for its officials on disability and inclusion.
- Efforts should be made to address accessibility challenges, physical and visual, encountered by elderly persons at polling stations and voter registration centres.
- ZEC and civil society should co-ordinate to provide voter education in rural areas where most elderly people live.
Civil society organisations
- ZEC should provide CSOs with greater access to electoral information to enable them to perform their critical role in ensuring credible elections.
- ZEC should ensure that fees for citizen observer groups are not prohibitive, given that citizen observers often have the numbers on the ground, as well as local knowledge, that international observers may lack.
- CSOs are encouraged to continue engaging in voter education with all segments of the population, with an emphasis on marginalised groups.
Churches and other faith-based organisations
- Faith-based organisations are encouraged to continue their efforts in promoting peace and tolerance in elections. Political parties should denounce sentiments among a minority group of faith-based organisations that perpetuate discrimination and exclusion in the context of elections.
- In consultation with affected groups, ZEC should review the level of candidate nomination fees to assess their impact on the inclusiveness of the nomination process.
- ZEC should take firm action, such as disqualifications or suspensions, against those involved in hate speech in its many forms.
- The effectiveness of both national and local multi-party liaison committees should be enhanced during the election campaign.
- Legislation capping electoral expenditure should be enacted before the next elections.
- To promote transparency and ensure greater accountability, the Political Parties (Finance) Act should be strengthened through the inclusion of provisions for the declaration of assets by parties, candidates and Members of Parliament.
- ZEC should incorporate a code of conduct for the use of social media into the Electoral Code of Conduct for Political Parties.
- ZEC’s capacity to monitor the media and ensure balanced coverage should be strengthened; a mechanism should be created for the immediate enforcement of balanced election coverage by broadcast and print media.
- Media outlets should establish an independent self-regulatory authority to set out standards and codes of behaviour for their organisations, and to rule on complaints from the public about biased news coverage during election campaigns. The self-regulatory authority should operate independently of the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC).
- Zimbabwean journalists should be given training to encourage less polarised coverage of election issues.
Voting, counting and results tabulation
- Some infrastructural challenges were observed, such as polling station locations without basic facilities (e.g. inadequate lighting or water) to enable the smooth and efficient management of elections. As Zimbabwe prospers, the infrastructure for elections should be given due consideration.
- To avoid fatigue and minimise human errors, ZEC should consider deploying its officials in shifts, whereby the presiding officer and polling officials hand over the counting process to a counting officer and counting staff. In addition, consideration should be given to reducing the volume of paperwork at polling stations.
- ZEC should consider streamlining the counting, collation and tabulation process to reduce redundancy and human errors without compromising the integrity and accuracy of the process.
- ZEC should ensure that underlying information from each polling station, which enables the collation of results for ward, constituency and presidential elections, are available throughout the process so that the aggregation of results is carried out transparently.
- The training of polling officials should be enhanced and lengthened to ensure greater consistency in the application of electoral procedures.
- A review of the procedures and approach for assisted voters should be conducted by ZEC to ensure consistency while maintaining the dignity and the secrecy of their vote.
- The current secrecy declaration should be reviewed, as it seems too broad in scope.
- The process for casting and counting postal votes should be reviewed, to ensure efficiency while guaranteeing secrecy of the vote.
- Civic education campaigns, especially those targeting women, youths and people who are illiterate, should be prioritised to ensure increased participation of these groups.
- To strengthen voter confidence in the electoral process, a more robust civic awareness and voter education programme – designed and implemented by ZEC, political parties and all relevant stakeholders, should be conducted.
- At the conclusion of the electoral period, a review of policies, procedures and staff capacity is recommended to identify the successes, challenges and lessons that can be learned to build and strengthen ZEC’s capacity for future elections.
The Group’s recommendations are wider ranging than those made by the other international observer missions, and there are more of them. The recommendations are largely constructive and helpful, and many of them can be implemented fairly easily. Careful consideration should be given to implementing as many of them as possible because, as stated in the report, the Government has applied to be readmitted to the Commonwealth and, as part of the membership process, the conclusion in the Observer Group’s report will be considered by the Commonwealth Secretary-General in her assessment of Zimbabwe’s commitment to the organisation’s values.