Summary of Proceedings on a Virtual Meeting Held by ZESN and the Portfolio Committee on Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs on 3 June 2020

Introduction

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) has been working on electoral matters since its inception. Pursuant to the 2018 elections, it lodged a petition with the Parliament of Zimbabwe (POZ) in respect of several deficiencies in the electoral legal framework that it sought to be reformed before the 2023 elections. The petition was accepted by Parliament and thereafter the organisation set to work on the proposed amendments to electoral legislation. It also worked on a political parties’ regulatory framework, consisting of two draft documents, the Political Parties Regulatory Bill and the Political Parties (Finance) Amendment Bill.

While ZESN was working on a number of election-related Bills the Covid-19 pandemic struck and shook the world. It disrupted normal programming. ZESN thus sought to update the Portfolio Committee on Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs (the Committee) on the work that it was doing under lockdown conditions.

The Committee having acceded to a request for the update meeting, the meeting was set for 3 June 2020. It was a virtual meeting, as ZESN sought to avoid violating lockdown measures currently in place. Turnout at the meeting was high, with a total of 24 Committee Members and secretariat, in addition to representatives from the ZESN Board members and staff.

The Meeting

Mr. Phillip Muziri from the Southern Africa Parliamentary Trust (SAPST) facilitated the discussions. The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs Chairperson, Hon. Misheck Mataranyika, chaired the meeting and in his opening remarks, thanked ZESN for calling for, and facilitating the interactive dialogue. He recalled that ZESN had lodged a petition to POZ which raised a number of pertinent issues around the electoral process in Zimbabwe. He was of the view that as a result of such engagements, the Committee would craft sound legal provisions that would contribute towards credible and uncontested future polls in Zimbabwe.

Further, Ms Rosewita Katsande, a ZESN Board Member and the Executive Director of the Youth Empowerment and Transformation Trust (YETT), gave the opening remarks on behalf of ZESN. She noted that the meeting was being held against the background of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, which had wreaked havoc the world over and had resulted in the change of engagement methodologies in order to protect stakeholders from the threat of the deadly pandemic.

Ms Katsande stated that prior to the pandemic ZESN had been in discussions with the POZ, specifically the Justice and Legal Affairs Portfolio Committee over the proposed electoral reforms. ZESN had in this regard drafted a consolidated Electoral Amendment Bill, as well as two other Bills, one on Political Parties’ Financing, and another one on political Parties’ Regulation. These would be submitted to POZ in due course. Ms Katsande also stated that the purpose of the meeting was for ZESN to give an update to the Committee on the different ways that it had been engaging stakeholders on electoral reform since the beginning of the pandemic. The meeting also presented an opportunity for Members of Parliament (MPs) to discuss the various strategies that were being employed in the face of the Covid-19 challenge.

ZESN Presentation

The Executive Director of ZESN, Mrs Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, led the main discussions of the day. She gave the background on electoral reform issues led by ZESN, highlighting the following key beacons on that journey:

  • ZESN submitted a Petition to the Committee on 3 December 2018
  • This was followed by oral submissions on the Petition in March 2019
  • On June 4 and 5, ZESN held workshop in Kariba to further deliberate on the Petition, attended by the Speaker and the Committee
  • On the 27th and 28th of July 2019, a Multi-Stakeholder Conference hosted by the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs in collaboration with the Southern Africa Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST) was held to discuss the ZESN Petition on Electoral Reforms in Kadoma. It brought together members of the Executive, independent commissions, and representatives of civil society organisations (CSOs) and traditional leaders
  • ZESN was at this forum directed to coordinate CSOs in developing a Model Law on Elections, in order to expedite the process of adopting the Electoral Reforms
  • Between August and October 2019, ZESN, through a highly consultative process besides cluster other technical partners led a process of developing a model Bill on elections
  • A collation of views was compiled and incorporated into a draft Bill
  • On the 22nd of October 2019, ZESN hosted a Breakfast Meeting which provided a platform to review the ZESN Electoral Bill. In attendance was the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs, development partners, Chapter 12 Institutions and Civil Society organizations
  • ZESN then worked on a Consolidated Electoral Amendment Bill draft, incorporating new changes into the already existing electoral law, and incorporated views from the October 2019 meeting
  • ZESN also drafted a Political Parties (Finance) Amendment Bill and a Political Parties Regulation Bill, which address issues of political financing and the regulation of political parties, respectively
  • In March 2020 Zimbabwe adopted lockdown measures in response to Covid-19
  • Prior to the onset on Covid-19, ZESN had plans to continue with the Electoral Reform programming
  • Due to the threat of the Covid-19 virus on the health and safety of participants ZESN altered the engagement methodology for these activities which were based on physical interaction through online coordination meetings

Update on Current Activities

Mrs Chipfunde-Vava highlighted the following as the major activities ZESN was undertaking:

  • The review of the ZESN Electoral Reform Amendment Bill was still ongoing on ZESN virtual platforms
  • ZESN had used virtual meetings platforms to conduct a civil society Cluster Meeting on the draft Political Parties Regulation Bill on the 21st of May 2020 and another Cluster Meeting to Discuss Women’s Provisions in the ZESN draft Electoral Amendment Bill on the 20th of May 2020.
  • ZESN has resumed public meetings under the banner “Making Elections Make Sense”, held on a fortnightly basis to discuss emerging electoral issues
  • Use was being made of social media and radio platforms to continue spreading electoral reform messages

Way forward

The Director advised the forum that the following were the key issues going forward:

  • The finalization of all draft Bills and their submission to Parliament in the coming weeks.
  • ZESN also intended to engage Parliament on the Constitutional Amendment Bill No. 2 via virtual platforms
  • ZESN hoped that the draft Amendment Bills and the proposals therein would be seriously considered. ZESN believed that these would improve future electoral processes in Zimbabwe.
  • ZESN would continue to consult and build consensus with all key stakeholders
  • ZESN remained open to collaborations and synergies in pursuant of electoral reform, as it believed that enhancement of the electoral legal framework was for the benefit of Zimbabwe.

Strategies in the Face of Covid-19

This session of the forum was open to interventions by Members. A number of comments and questions were raised from the floor. Highlights of that session were as follows:

  • Whether it was not ideal to consolidate the proposed reforms into one composite Bill, rather than house them in various statutes. ZESN responded that it would reflect on this suggestion. It highlighted that the reason why they were in different Bills was because they addressed different and specific issues.
  • The Committee would in due course present the petition in Parliament plenary. It had failed to do so due to a congested Order Paper.
  • MPs wanted an appraisal on how elections could be conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic. ZESN responded that the two examples from the region were not best practice: Malawi and Burundi had conducted electoral processes under pandemic conditions without following World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations on the pandemic. There was no social distancing and rallies were being held in the ordinary way. Both countries had put in place measures that made it difficult to observe their elections, particularly Burundi which indicated that all observers would need to go on quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in the country. There was a possibility of using technologies to reduce human contact for electoral processes.
  • ZESN advised that while Zimbabwe had postponed by-elections, this would possibly raise the spectre of democracy under quarantine. This was a problematic. There was need to ensure constitutional compliance without compromising human safety.
  • ZESN also advised that it was important to resource election management bodies (EMBs) to ensure that they were able to discharge their mandate. The pandemic had shown that it could be around for some time. Thus it was important to plan for this and future crises. There was also need to ensure that electoral stakeholders worked with health institutions and authorities.
  • How does ZESN ensure wider reach under pandemic conditions? ZESN responded by stating that it was reliant on its network organisations around the country. Further, it was using social media and radio stations. ZESN encouraged the use of television stations and the mobile telephone sector for bulk messaging. Loud hailers could also be used to spread messages.

Closing Remarks

Mrs Matsvayi, a ZESN Board Member and the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association, made closing remarks. She thanked the Chairman of the Committee, all MPs and secretariat for making this first virtual meeting between ZESN and parliamentary committee a success. She believed that their presence was testimony to the fact that they had an interest in the realisation of electoral reforms in Zimbabwe, and that they would remain committed to the cause for electoral reform. Although there were a few challenges with the sound quality which affected some Members, the meeting was on the whole a success.

Source: Zimbabwe Election Support Network