By Andrew Kunambura
Stakeholders are doubting government’s commitment to the electoral reform process following the conclusion of a Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) kits validation test that marked the first official step towards next year’s general elections.
Stakeholders who participated in the BVR kits validation test, conducted a fortnight ago, argued that from what they witnessed, the electoral field is still far from being level.
Despite elections drawing nearer, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is yet to release its electoral roadmap hence critics believe there is still no commitment towards levelling the electoral playing field.
Critics argue that the BVR alone cannot address all the electoral concerns in the country, among them a biased State media, the militarisation of ZEC, inadequate voter education, intimidation and at times outright violence before, during and after the polls and the existence of electoral laws that favour the sitting government.
ZEC, however, argues that the technology would produce a perfect voters’ roll by year end.
Although opposition parties have been at the forefront of advocating for a clean voters’ roll, they feel that the pricy technology should be complemented by many other interventions before the elections take place mid-2018. But time is fast running out.
Two companies namely Dermalog Identification Systems of Germany and Laxton Group Limited from China have survived the race for the tender, and participated in the BVR validation test.
The companies carried out mock voter registrations in Harare and Seke, Chitungwiza, from April 21 to April 26 as part of the validation test for their kits.
ZEC will soon announce the winning bid.
Government and the United Nations Development Programme will jointly purchase the equipment at a cost of US$30 million, marking the first time Zimbabwe will use the technology.
It is hoped that the adoption of a new voter registration system would prevent voter duplication while ensuring that names of deceased persons do not appear on the roll as had been the case with the manual voter registration.
In previous elections, the voters’ roll has been a source for much controversy.
The main opposition party, the Morgan Tsvangirai-led Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) has been boycotting legislative and municipality by-elections since its heavy defeat to ZANU-PF in the 2013 general elections arguing that the ruling party rigs elections, taking advantage of an uneven electoral field, which is tilted in its favour.
But ZANU-PF has adamantly denied the allegations, branding the MDC-T a cry-baby.
ZANU-PF Politburo member, Jonathan Moyo — who is largely considered to be the party’s chief strategist — last year poured cold water on calls from the opposition for electoral reforms saying there was no way the party would reform itself out of power.
The statements came in the middle of violent protests by a grouping of opposition parties and civil society organisations amalgamating under the umbrella organ, the National Elections Reform Agenda (NERA), to press for electoral reforms.
There is widespread belief within the opposition that government rolled out the BVR exercise only to give the impression that they are implementing electoral reforms as well as hoodwinking the international community into believing that they are keen on levelling the electoral field.
From previous electoral experiences, some argue that at least three fundamental issues for evaluating an electoral reform process stand out.
Firstly, there is need for a reformed electoral system to possess technical merit to define practical and consistent means to whatever ends the reform was intended to accomplish.
Whether those ends are to improve equality of representation or to make the party system more manageable, it should be possible to decide election outcomes objectively, efficiently, and quickly in every possible situation.
This would help eliminate the vagueness, inconsistencies and impracticalities that have undermined elections in the country.
Secondly, the electoral system needs to be reformed to achieve a clean break with the past, which is what NERA and other stakeholders have been demanding, to safeguard the legitimacy of the poll result.
In a typical situation in which people do call for a reform, the process should make it possible to achieve a real break from the past.
Finally, the outcome of a reform process should be viewed as legitimate by as many citizens as possible; the more legitimate the reform, the better the electoral system can resolve the struggle for the right to rule and the longer the electoral system is likely to last.
A legitimate electoral system is a necessary part of an institutionalised democratic regime, and here is where mere paper reforms such as BVR come short.
MDC-T spokesperson, Obert Gutu, said the party was worried that there were so many outstanding issues that needed to be attended to in the electoral reform process.
“The BVR is one thing amongst a cocktail of various other issues that have to be explored to ensure next year’s elections are free and fair. On its own, BVR won’t be able to vaccinate the electoral playing field of challenges such as voter intimidation, particularly in rural areas and the abuse of State media by ZANU-PF,” he said, quoting section 155(d) of the Constitution, which grants all parties contesting in elections “fair and equal access to electronic and print media, both public and private”.
The practice has, however, been that State media — particularly the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation — has denied opposition parties access, allegedly at the instruction of the governing party.
“The ZANU-PF regime is refusing such reforms and we are convinced that the party is beyond reformation. Our strategy is to relentlessly push for the adoption of the whole array of reforms as enunciated in the NERA trajectory,” said Gutu.
As part of the reforms, all parties must, for example, be able to commit to ensuring that elections are held in an environment which is free from the common vices of violence, threats of violence, vote buying and general intimidation of voters.
Opposition parties argue that ZANU-PF — which they allege has been guilty of all these vices — has not offered itself to ensuring peaceful and fair elections.
And as long as those accusations continue to linger, the legitimacy of any poll result in the country will always be questioned.
The situation is not helped by cases whereby senior ZANU-PF officials such as its secretary for administration, Ignatius Chombo, who was recently televised telling resettled farmers during a field day that they were so indebted to the ruling party that they were supposed to vote only for it.
Already, allegations of intimidation and violence are flying, particularly in the countryside where ZANU-PF has preyed on the poverty and insecurity of villagers.
The Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a human rights organisation, reported widespread intimidation, threats and politically-motivated violence involving ZANU-PF in its April report, concluding that such cases were likely to increase as elections draw nearer.
ZPP reports for April show a total of 123 human rights violations, from 112 cases recorded in March. “The month under focus had 798 victims altogether. Of these victims, those affiliated to the Movement for Democratic Change stood at 3,4 percent which translates to 27 people while those affiliated to ZANU-PF are 19,” the report reads.
“A total of 798 victims and 188 perpetrators were recorded. (Some) 62,2 percent of the victims were male while 37,8 were females. About 87,6 percent of the perpetrators were male while 12,4 percent were female.
“One hundred and forty six perpetrators were affiliated to the ruling ZANU-PF party which is 77,7 percent of the figure. Only one of the perpetrators could not be established which party they were affiliated to. Eighteen perpetrators were police officers while seven of the perpetrators were Central Intelligence Organisation operatives and 14 perpetrators were from the MDC-T,” the ZPP report further reads.
Parties under the NERA banner have since threatened to go back to the streets to push for further reforms.
“We call upon all Zimbabweans from all walks of life to resist the rigging. The political parties will work together to ensure that the rights of the Zimbabwean people are not trampled underfoot by this vile regime,” said NERA spokesman, Douglas Mwonzora.
But founder of the Youth Advocacy for Reform and Democracy (YARD), Temba Mliswa, is not amused by the idea of demonstrations.
The Norton National Assembly representative, who was at the receiving end of ZANU-PF-driven electoral irregularities when he stood for Hurungwe West constituency by-election as an independent candidate in 2015, said the parties must take the fight to rural areas where the ruling party has maintained an unassailable stranglehold.
“Demonstrations don’t work. I have always said let’s convert that energy into taking our campaigns to the rural areas. ZANU-PF allows the BVR process to continue because it does not interfere with their machinations. There has never been stuffing of ballots such that we can say a clean voters’ roll will disturb it. There are electoral malpractices such as intimidation, violence and the involvement of traditional leaders; those are the issues we need to address,” said Mliswa.
His sentiments were corroborated by Maureen Kademaunga, leader of a pressure group known as She-vote, which is campaigning for increased participation of women in elections under the theme: Her vote wins 2018.
“My own prognosis is that those reforms will not come. The BVR process is very welcome and progressive, but already, there has been a gap which we are trying to fill. When you go to rural areas, you notice that ZANU-PF is busy intimidating people using the same BVR system. People are being told that their details will be captured and stored in computers which would enable them to tell whom they would have voted for. The intimidation is in full swing and that education gap needs to be filled. So reforms are incomplete if they do not target such vulnerable communities which are easily manipulated,” said Kademaunga.
While frustrations will continue to linger, there is no denying the fact that the BVR process marks a great step forward in a lengthy and not always direct passage toward democracy that stretches back to the days of colonialism when white minority regimes operated an obscure electoral system which disenfranchised the majority of the black population as a means of maintaining political hegemony.
A plus, though, for the BVR system is that results cannot be tinkered with on a large scale because cheating, for example, when counting votes, may produce margins of victory, but when they are relied on excessively, they backfire on the perpetrators.
Thus, the BRV case underscores the centrality of electoral processes and electoral institutions in democratisation, but there is still a long way to go. Financial Gazette