On Tuesday, November 24 2020, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) hosted a virtual public meeting on the topic “Dynamics of Electoral Democracy- Zimbabwe in 2020 Retrospect”. The objective of the meeting was to discuss developments in the year 2020 in the country which had an impact on electoral democracy. On the panel was a team of constitutional, electoral and development experts who comprised of Dr. Phillan Zamchiya, an Elections and International Development scholar, Dr. Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda who is the Chief Executive Officer of Rozaria Trust, Sally Ncube the National Coordinator of the Women Coalition of Zimbabwe, Dumisani Nkomo the Director of Hababkuk Trust, Glanis Changachirere the Team Leader for Institute for Young Women Development and Prisca Dube a Projects Officer for Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.
The discussion focused on a number of developments that occurred throughout the year including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on electoral processes, recalls of Members of Parliament and Councilors, cancellation of by elections, the Constitutional Amendment exercise, internal party elections, the discourse on delimitation of electoral boundaries among other development. The meeting was attended by about 50 participants.
Panelists identified some of the key electoral developments that stood out in the year as the COVID 19 situation which resulted in restricted movement and subsequently limited access to information especially for marginalized groups, the court judgements which had an effect of sanctioning the opposition and muzzling voices of the electorate, the break in Parliamentary sittings for a significant time,the arrest of ordinary citizens for attending a human rights workshop outside the country, the abduction and torture of three young female political activists among others. The suspension of a number of human rights and electoral rights was identified as the most important development that threatened electoral democracy in the country.
Asked what the “gendered” implications of the developments in 2020 are, panelists noted that the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 situation led to a significant drop in the participation of women in electoral processes. This was also excarcabeted by recalls from Parliament and Council, which affect a number of female political representatives. Access to information became particularly problematic for women because of gender digital gaps which affect more women than men and are often associated with affordability, connectivity issues and access to power. Gender based violence also increased significantly during this period, and there was a general closing out of political space for women, particularly young women.
Panelists at the meeting also noted the effect of developments in 2020 on the grassroots people. It was agreed that the ordinary people are disillusioned with elections and other democratic processes because these have failed to deliver their expectations of basic services like roads, education, health and employment. Rather, ordinary citizens now see elections as elite exercises that are about people wanting to get into power. It was noted that this situation has led to significant apathy and unwillingness to participate in electoral processes by the citizens. It was also noted that many citizens, particularly in rural areas, often do not understand the basis of electing capable leaders, as they are mostly interested in party politics.
Another point observed during the meeting was that in the year 2020, political parties voices were not heard. It was agreed that political parties, particular those in opposition, need to be strengthened by being made accountable and responsive. This, according to the panelists, will benefit the communities that choose representatives.
The meeting generally noted that the year 2020 has been a very bad year for electoral democracy in Zimbabwe as in other jurisdictions. To a greater extent, Zimbabwe has backslided since the COVID-19 situation has been used to consolidate authoritarianism. Panelists noted that 2020 witnessed the authoritarian controls of the judiciary, the penetration of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), failure of participatory democracy, compromised functionality of Electoral dispute resolution mechanisms and the closing up of access to electoral information for all citizens. There was a consensus that the Zimbabwean political environment remained very restrictive throughout the year, which further limited the potential of citizens to enjoy their democratic rights.
When the meeting was opened to the floor, participants were generally in agreement with panelists, that the COVID-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe compromised electoral democracy as it diverted the attention of the majority from democratic issues to concentrate more on bread and butter issues. Participants also asked if it was still plausible to consider the ZEC as an independent institution, given the pronouncement that were made without its involvement, regarding the suspension of by- elections. Another question posed was on how citizens can continue to hold government accountable. Panelists responded to these questions by noting that the ZEC needs to be strengthened in terms of its independence, and that citizens can hold government accountable by increasing their level of participation in the electoral process.
By way of recommendation, the meeting noted that in order to improve electoral democracy, there is need for the alignment process of laws with the Constitution to be conclude, facilitate access of documentation to enable citizens to register to vote, sanction violence against women in political parties, strengthening of political parties, promote the participation of other marginalized groups like the youth and people with disability in electoral processes, and generally call for a sustained electoral reform discourse towards the next elections in 2023.
This engagement was a great success as it brought together stakeholders for a reflection on the developments of 2020, and proffer recommendations to guarantee electoral democracy as we move towards the next harmonized elections in 2023. The virtual meeting was also live streamed on the ZESN Facebook Page and reached 9100 people.
Source: Zimbabwe Election Support Network