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By-elections: Judge grills govt lawyers

By Moses Matenga | NewsDay |

High Court judge Justice Siyabonga Paul Musithu yesterday grilled government lawyers over the State’s failure to hold by-elections for vacant parliamentary and local government seats long after lockdown restrictions were eased.

Main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) vice president and legislator Tendai Biti
Main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) vice president and legislator Tendai Biti

The Election Resource Centre (ERC), the Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (Walpe) and six other applicants, had brought the matter to court, accusing government and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) of illegally suspending by-elections.

Several parliamentary and council seats fell vacant after the MDC-T led by Douglas Mwonzora recalled MPs and councillors affiliated to the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga, who is also the Health minister, were also cited as respondents in the matter where judgment was reserved.

During the hearing, State lawyers Olivia Zvedi and Tawanda Kanengoni argued that by-elections were suspended to save lives as the country was under threat of a new COVID-19 wave, but Justice Musithu queried why schools and universities had been allowed to open under such circumstances.

“What makes elections different from any other activities since schools and universities are open and people are allowed to use public transport and are moving around?” Justice Musithu asked.

He further quizzed the government lawyers to explain whether it was not prudent to have a time- specific suspension of by-elections or whether it was not sufficient to implement measures to be followed in the holding of by-elections which would contain the spread of the deadly pandemic.

“Isn’t it that elections are just held for one day? Elections have been held in Tanzania and in the United States,” he said.

Several countries, including the US, Malawi, Tanzania and Uganda have held elections during the COVID-19 era while following the prescribed World Health Organisation (WHO) protocols.

The High Court judge further asked Zec and government lawyers to explain whether there was a specific time when the “indefinite suspension” of by-elections would be lifted.

The lawyers said the risk of the third wave was still high and holding elections in that environment would be disastrous.

ERC lawyer Tendai Biti, however, argued that it was wrong for Zec to hide behind COVID-19 as an excuse for not holding by-elections.

He suggested that strict measures could be put in place to safeguard voters’ health. Biti also accused government of selective application of the law, whereby it allowed Zanu PF to carry on with its activities while the opposition remained locked down.