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Indefinite suspension of by-elections undercuts the Constitution: ZESN

Vice President Constantino Chiwenga delivered the lockdown order recently

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) has expressed concern over the indefinite suspension of by-elections by Hon Constantino Chiwenga, the Minister of Health and Child Care who is also the Vice President of the Republic of Zimbabwe.

The independent electoral body said the move taken as a health emergency COVID-19 response undercuts Constitutional principles on freedom of expression, good electoral practice, and curtails the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and Parliamentary oversight.   

In terms of Section 68 Chapter 15:17 of the Public Health Act, the government enacted Statutory Instrument 225A of 2020 (SI 2020-225A) which will be cited as Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment, and Treatment) (Amendment) Regulations, 2020, No 4). The S.I suspended by-elections that had been pencilled to be held on 5 December 2020. 

“Pursuant to subsection (2), the holding of any by-election to fill in a casual vacancy in Parliament or in a local authority, is for the duration of the period of the declaration of the COVID-19 as a formidable epidemic disease, suspended, and if such vacancy occurred while such a declaration is in force, no part of the period from the date of such vacancy to the date of the end of the declaration shall be counted for the purposes of section 158 (3) of the Constitution, ” read the Amendment.

ZESN is of the view that, while the special policy has been enacted in response to containing the pandemic, it is concerned on the seemingly quarantining of democracy as it is not clear when the restrictions will be lifted and more so given that no one knows how long the pandemic will last.

ZESN noted that the amendment to suspend by-elections comes a few weeks after the ZEC, in consultation with the Health Ministry recently published a COVID-19 policy on elections, paving the way to the conduct of by-elections in the context of the COVID-19.

Subsequently last month, ZEC further announced when by-elections would be held to fill in over 30 vacant seats either due to party recalls or other reasons such as a death in the COVID-19 era. 

“What is good for the goose is good for the gander. Parliament conducted public hearings on Constitutional Amendment Bill No.2 at the height of the pandemic, citizens queue on a daily basis for basic commodities, cashouts at banks and money agents, social welfare and food aid from the government, foundations, NGOs, and churches, among other organizations are providing aid whilst observing safety measures.

“The government has also relaxed the lockdown measures. Furthermore, a number of countries have so far held electoral activities amid COVID-19, with Malawi conducting general elections only recently. Tanzania is set to hold elections on 28 October, the USA and South Africa are on course to conducting general and municipal elections in November 2020.  There is a need to strike a balance between ensuring the health and safety of all stakeholders and upholding the law. ZESN recommends more dialogue between ZEC and electoral stakeholders on alternative methods of conducting elections that will ensure the health and safety for all involved.”

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Byron Adonis Mutingwende