The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) in partnership with the Centre for Innovation and Technology (CITE) hosted a Twitter space Meeting on the topic; “The 26th March by Elections: Lessons for the 2023 Harmonised Elections.” Panellists who participated in the discussion were; Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Spokesperson Commissioner Jasper Mangwana, Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission Director for Monitoring and Inspections Priscilla Mbanga, an academic and political analyst Dr. Ibbo Mandaza, Election Resources Centre Chairperson Trust Maanda, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights Executive Director Roselyn Hanzi, Zimbabwe Council of Churches Programmes Team Leader Dr. Tinashe Gumbo and Media Monitors Director Patience Zirima. The meeting was moderated by CITE Director Zenzele Ndebele and focused on reviewing the recently held by-elections, identifying gaps in election preparedness and determining whether conditions exist for conducting peaceful, free, fair and credible democratic elections in 2023.
Trust Maanda highlighted that the elections were largely peaceful, characterised by a high number of assisted voters in some areas, symbols not being captured on ballot papers and the voters’ roll not being made available for the purpose of analysis. He observed that ZEC permitted observers and party agents to observe the counting and the results were posted outside the polling station on time as expected. However, Maanda said Zimbabwe still has a long way before it can have free and fair elections in accordance with the Constitution because of issues such as unequal access and representation in the media coupled with the use of hate speech by political parties and candidates during campaigning and elections.
Dr. Ibbo Mandaza postulated that unconstitutional, illegal and arbitrary recalls of Members of Parliament which led to the by-elections were an affront to democracy itself. He emphasized the need for electoral reforms including enhancing the independence of the ZEC to improve public perception. Dr. Mandaza recommended that there is a need to ensure that the military is not involved in electoral processes as has been the case in past elections.
Dr. Tinashe Gumbo concluded that the elections were not fully peaceful based on the observations the Church made on peace and tolerance. He bemoaned the use of hate speech in the media during campaigns, lack of comprehensive civic and electoral education leading to the elections, voters’ roll challenges and selective application of the law by the police during the run-up to the elections and impartial coverage of some political parties by the media.
Patience Zirima brought to the fore many critical issues regarding how the media handled the elections in terms of reportage and gender dimensions of electoral processes. She noted that the three major political parties received much coverage compared to the smaller political parties. She highlighted the limited representation of female candidates, media role in fanning the flames of conflict between political parties and candidates and generally limited access to media platforms by-election stakeholders. She recommended the need to enhance the professionalism of the media, the need to deal with the structural distortions in it and have a regulatory framework for elections that ensures a free and fair electoral environment. She also took a swipe at the proliferation of misinformation on social media platforms.
Priscilla Mbanga reported that the Commission observed that voter registration and voter education, the successful sitting of the Nomination Court, accreditation of both local and foreign observers, successful holding of Multi-Party Liaison Committees across all constituencies, polling stations opening and closing on time, peaceful voting, announcement of results and the posting of results at polling stations were all conducted in accordance with the law. She raised politicisation of the right to documentation, political intolerance such as defacing and removing political rivals’ posters, low voter turnout, and inaccessibility of some of the polling stations by people with disability as issues of concern, among others. Mbanga recommended the need for ZEC to provide extensive voter education on polling for extended periods, for political parties to deploy agents to all polling stations and that the civil registry department must conduct extensive registration throughout the country to ensure that all citizens enjoy their political right to vote.
Roselyn Hanzi opined that ZEC did not consult all interested parties to determine the location of polling stations based on the voters’ roll. She explained the procedure for assisted voters, according to Section 60 of the Electoral Act and questioned the high numbers of assisted voters, particularly in rural areas. Hanzi castigated the capturing of information of voters that is already in the voters’ roll and telephone numbers as a form of contact tracing for COVID-19 and noted that this was not done according to the law. She recommended the implementation of outstanding electoral reforms ahead of the next elections, including aligning the Electoral Act to the Constitution; reforms within the police to ensure that they fulfil their constitutional mandate of maintaining law and order and the constituting of the Electoral Act throughout the Electoral cycle.
Commissioner Jasper Mangwana attributed the confusion on redirected voters to the fact that there were several streams in one polling station with a threshold of a thousand each. He explained that the Commission made efforts to reach out to people to check their registration details on the BVR inspection portal and to also encourage the display of the voters’ roll two or three days before the election. He underlined that ZEC will try to come up with a bulk SMS solution in order to ensure that everyone receives an SMS notification on their registration details for the 2023 elections.
Commissioner Mangwana said despite everything being in place for the elections, bad weather spoiled the day by disrupting processes such as results transmission and hinted that, in the next elections they will seriously consider the projected weather patterns for polling day in advance. He also assured the participants that ZEC’s doors are always open to report grievances and the Commission is ready to ensure they deliver according to the law of the land.
There were several comments and contributions from participants which included complaints on the independence of ZEC. One participant referred to the 2018 Presidential Ballot paper, which he claimed was designed in a way favouring the incumbent, thus confirming the partiality of the ZEC. Others spoke about several incidents that resulted in people not being able to vote on the day, such as being turned away or redirected to other polling stations, logistical challenges like pens not working and polling stations with no sanitisers. There were also complaints about “COVID-19” protocols where voters were supposed to write their names and phone numbers at the polling station after checking their temperature and this made some people uncomfortable as they felt like it was an invasion of their privacy.
The virtual meeting was a success as it fulfilled the objective of discussing how the by-elections were conducted and proffering recommendations on how the political, legislative and administrative environment can be improved for the conduct of credible elections. The meeting attracted more than 700 participants on the Twitter space platform where it was conducted.