There is nothing new about the shortcomings of the 2018 harmonised elections. The stage for the current dispute was set when authorities refused to strengthen the legal framework for elections immediately after the 2013 elections. In 2014, the current President who was then the Vice President and Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs went on record promising to bring before Parliament a comprehensive Bill amending the Electoral Act to make it consistent with the Constitution of Zimbabwe. This followed concerns raised by the Election Resource Centre (ERC) regarding inadequacy of an Electoral Amendment Bill drafted in 2014 and the attempt to stampede the bill without conducting public hearings.
Thereafter the ERC submitted a petition to Parliament outlining issues that remained unaligned with the Constitution. The petition was ignored for over a year before public hearings were eventually conducted with recorded evidence of disruptions by stakeholders opposed to electoral reforms. The issues raised in the petition were only cosmetically addressed between 2014 and 2017 setting the stage for an election to be conducted based on a very weak legal framework. Going to elections with the independence of the electoral commission compromised was evidently planned and executed to ensure a predetermined electoral outcome.
As a result of the weakened legal framework, the capacity of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to administer the election in full accordance with the law and international standards was inevitably handicapped. Clear patterns of a rejection by the electoral commission to act in a transparent and accountable manner, thus affecting the verifiability of the electoral process, emerged as early as the voter registration exercise. On requests made by the ERC, ZEC refused to adjust its distribution of Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) kits and centres given the evident over registration in rural communities and under registration in urban areas. ZEC further refused to share daily statistics of the registration process broken down to each BVR kit. ZEC also refused to share the voters’ rolls used for the nomination process and that availed for inspection. ZEC refused to allow the verification of ballot papers printed and did not share a full final copy of the voters’ roll used for polling. At the level of results, ZEC shared partial results without availing critical information such as number of spoilt ballots for the parliamentary vote and number of assisted voters disaggregated to the polling stations. The absence of critical information withheld by ZEC deliberately compromised transparency of the election and resulted in limited capacity to verify the electoral process. The actions of ZEC were clearly deliberate as concerns were officially raised on the issues and ignored through formal communication.
The political environment, while clearly better than previous elections also remained characterised by deliberate efforts to influence the vote. Regardless of a standing High Court order barring traditional leaders from engaging in partisan politics, President Mnangagwa encouraged the engagement of traditional leaders by candidates of his party to win the election. Efforts at engaging the president to address the issue went unheeded. During the campaign period, the Presidential Input Scheme was also launched to support the agriculture sector. It was noted that the government support through the programme was being implemented at the height of election campaigns and candidates seeking public office were using rallies to distribute the support. Again, efforts to engage the presidency on the matter officially were ignored.
While the issue of management of the 2018 election results remains contested, it is clear that the contested results are in themselves a product of a process that was riddled with choreographed irregularities bordering on illegalities.
The following are evident in assessing the entire electoral process in Zimbabwe since the 2013 elections;
1. The issues being disputed in terms of both the process and outcome were known and officially communicated to the authorities in Zimbabwe ahead of time.
2. The bulk of the issues being contested have been raised in previous successive elections through reports issued by regional and domestic election observer missions.
3. The deployment of disputed measures by authorities before, during and after the elections could have been deliberate and measured with the intention of achieving a predetermined outcome.
4. Ample opportunities availed themselves to Zimbabwean authorities for the electoral process to be improved but they were ignored.
The 2018 elections were never about who won or lost. They were about improving democracy in Zimbabwe through strengthening laws, strengthening and insulating institutions from abuse and manipulation and securing the environment for citizens to freely and meaningfully participate in governance processes. The internationally embraced rhetoric on peaceful, free and fair elections since the military intervention of November 2017 did nothing to support the above.
Going forward, democracy in general and elections in particular can only be improved if Zimbabwe revisits the issue of legal reform focusing on the Electoral Act and other related laws, institutional reform especially reviewing the conduct of institutions that support democracy and the security sector and security of citizens, focussing on the political environment and how government interacts with citizens. These three are interrelated and their exhaustive review has to be a national and inclusive process grounded in sincere political will on the part of those in authority. In addressing these issues, it will be essential to outline clear deliverables with defined timelines to avoid previous experiences of open ended processes that end up dominated by partisan political considerations.
Source: Election Resource Centre