By Byron Mutingwende
Civil society organisations (CSOs) have expressed concern over the half-hearted attempts and lack of political will to reform the laws and institutions governing the conduct of elections in Zimbabwe.
This emerged at an All Stakeholders Conference coordinated by the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN) in Bulawayo early this week to promote democratic elections in the country.
“We note with concern, that in the absence of democratic reforms, the 2018 elections will not be free and fair. The Electoral Act is not yet aligned to the Constitution, more than three years after its promulgation into law,” said the CSOs in a communiqué developed at the conference.
It emerged that the legal framework for the holding of elections in Zimbabwe falls short of regional and international standards in that the existing laws, particularly the Electoral Act still needs to be aligned to the Constitution.
Dr. Victor Shale, in his presentation on the analysis of lessons that can be learnt from the region on dispute resolution mechanism, said that the Lesotho, South Africa and Zambia cases, although different in context and electoral systems, are similar in that they recognize and embrace the role of stakeholders such as political parties and CSOs in the management of conflicts arising from elections.
He urged the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to regularly consult and dialogue with key stakeholders at every step of the electoral process.
“Thus, electoral management bodies have to seek preventive mechanisms to ensure that electoral disputes are arrested in their early stages and violence is controlled. Through dialogue and consensus building among key players, ways of transforming elections ‘from a zero-sum game into a positive-sum game’ can be established,” Shale said.
To corroborate the call, prominent lawyer, Tinoziva Bere said that unresolved conflict; weak or unjust or partisan institutions; impunity (lack of rule of law); weak or unjust legal framework for elections or partisan leadership and staffing for electoral bodies were among the key drivers of conflicts.
The Director of ZESN, Rindai Chipfunde said that there was the need to review and amend subsidiary legislation that is contradictory to Constitutional provisions on fundamental freedoms that impact on elections such as the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA), Public Order and Security Act (POSA), Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).
She said that in line with the Constitution, there was the need for electoral regulations that create an enabling environment for free and fair elections and allow for the participation of citizens including women, youths, people living with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups.
“There is need for legislation that enforces strict adherence to the Political Parties’ Code of Conduct to address electoral violence, vote-buying and other malpractices, coupled with legislation to register political parties with clear regulations spelling out funding mechanisms for political party election campaigns including disclosure requirements and limits (on funds that political parties may receive and spend on election campaigns),” Chipfunde said.
In his recommendation on resolving disputes, Festus Okoye, the Executive Director Human Rights Monitor that the institutions empowered to resolve election related disputes should be independent and non-partisan.
“Individuals and parties that are aggrieved should be free to activate the machinery of the courts or tribunals. Election related disputes should be resolved expeditiously and if possible within reasonable timeframes. The law relating to the resolution of election disputes should be certain and not subject to arbitrary change,” Okoye said.
In addition, there is a need for enhancing the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s (ZEC) capacity to enable it to operate in an independent and professional manner as well as adequate and independent funding for ZEC to reduce the electoral management body’s dependence on government.
CSOs argued that the Parliamentary oversight of ZEC is necessary to ensure independence and professionalism in the management of elections since the independence of ZEC entails that it is not subject to the direction and control of the Executive or any political party. Members of the Commission must adhere to professionalism by not acting in a partisan manner.
A robust voter education on the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) process will allow stakeholders and the voters to understand the process.
The BVR system is intended to clean the voter register by avoiding duplication and removing the names of the dead voters; ensuring efficiency; improving the quality of the voter register an enhancing trust in and credibility of the electoral process.
However, the lack of clear legal regimes, clarity on use of technology; and confidentiality issues are some of the challenges faced in the use of the BVR system.
ZEC was urged to make available pertinent information on electoral processes in line with open data principles. In that vein, the information should be complete, timely, easy to read and analyzable. Electoral Management Bodies in SADC were encouraged to share materials and equipment used in the conduct of elections. CSOs emphasized the need for regulations to ensure equitable access to the state media for all electoral contestants.
A cocktail of political reforms were also prescribed. These include the need for an enabling political environment conducive for the conduct of free and fair elections to be created before 2018.
“There is need to deal with issues that impact on voter turnout and voting such as vote buying, violence and intimidation, political patronage, information control and weak institutions and ensuring media pluralism and diversity as well as equitable access to state media by all electoral contestants. The state and ZEC must enforce the media code of conduct and ethical reporting,” read a part of the communiqué.
Civil society pledged to forge strategic alliances to push for reforms on identified key electoral issues through lobbying and advocacy initiatives for implementation of the constitutional provisions on free and fair elections.
Over and above that, civil society will continue to conduct civic education to enhance awareness on electoral rights and facilitate meaningful citizen participation (including the participation of persons living with disabilities, youths and women and other disadvantaged groups) in the electoral processes.
“We will continue to engage parliamentarians and independent commissions as part of a multi-pronged advocacy programme for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. Thus, we will monitor the political environment, document and expose cases of human rights abuses and other electoral malpractices before, during and after elections.”