By Paidamoyo Muzulu
THIS Saturday, March 26, 2022, Zimbabweans go to a mini-general election. This would be the first election since the disputed 2018 presidential election, but very little has changed since then in terms of election management. The state agencies empowered to run the polls are still partial to the ruling party, Zanu PF.
Zimbabwe elections based on Westminister’s first past the post electoral system have had a fair share of problems. These problems stem from the lack of independence by the state bodies that should run polls in an impartial manner. However, more often than not these bodies act as if they are an extension of the ruling party.
Elections in Zimbabwe are primarily run by independent constitutional bodies that include Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP).
The elections are run based on the constitution, the Electoral Act and the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act (MOPA). These are pretty straightforward and simple to interpret pieces of law, however, the above-cited constitutional bodies and state agencies interpret the same based on partisan interests.
Functions of the statutory bodies
ZEC is the organisation that has the responsibility of running elections in Zimbabwe. Among its functions is to inform the President of vacancies that may have arisen, prepare a voters roll, conduct the actual polling and declare the winners of any election.
ZMC is the constitutional body primarily having powers to regulate the media in Zimbabwe. During elections, ZMC has the extra duty to ensure that the media give equal opportunities to all contesting parties, the media does not use hate speech or inciteful language and above all that it gives neutral information to voters.
And finally, the ZRP has a duty to maintain law and order in the country. During elections, ZRP has the added responsibility of regulating public rallies or gatherings in terms of MOPA. it is this regulatory role that the police have abused as shall be highlighted below.
The electoral body, ZEC, has over the years failed to produce a credible voters roll that is used to divide people into wards and constituencies for electoral purposes.
A local civil society organisation, Pachedu has demonstrated that the voters’ roll is in shambles. It has been highlighted among other things that the voters roll contains names of deceased persons, some voters have missing essential detail like residential addresses and lastly that some people staying on the same address have been put in different wards.
ZEC is further accused of failing to avail to candidates and other interested stakeholders a verifiable copy of the voter’s roll in advance before polling day. However, ZEC has failed dismally to do this over the years.
Unfortunately, ZEC has failed to provide a coherent argument against these allegations besides merely saying that all concerns raised by stakeholders would be looked into.
The media commission has failed in its duty to regulate the media on how it should cover elections. Zimbabwe’s media landscape is dominated by state-controlled Zimpapers which has more than 10 papers under its stable, four radio stations and a television licence.
Zimpapers has since 1980 backed the ruling Zanu PF party. It has not afforded the opposition parties equitable coverage in its papers or radio stations and its television network.
In 2019, Justice Mafusire of the Masvingo High Court in the case of Veritas v Zimpapers ruled the state media had failed to do what is expected of it. The editorial thrust of the company was found to be partisan to Zanu PF and the opposition was generally not given space and usually denigrated in the editorial pages of the media group. In short, Zimpapers was deemed to have failed to measure up to the notions of a publicly owned media that should be reflective of the diversified views of the people living in Zimbabwe and contesting for political power.
The police services have generally been partial in implementing its role as a regulatory authority for public gatherings. In the period under review, ZRP has banned 5 opposition rallies on flimsy grounds. These have been proven on appeal to the Magistrates or High courts in Zimbabwe.
The most visible opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), had it rallies in Marondera, Binga, Gokwe and Epworth banned by police despite the fact that MOPA says the police should be notified of public gatherings at least four days in advance for security reasons.
However, police interpret this provision as if it is the licensing authority for public gatherings.
The police have over the years failed to provide security at opposition rallies. A classic example in the period under review is where one opposition activist was stabbed by a spear at a Kwekwe rally and succumbed to the injuries at the hospital. More than a dozen other activists had varying degrees of injuries and were admitted into the hospital. However, despite the fact that the meeting was held during the day and in the presence of police, suspects were only arrested 24 hours later after the violence.
Interestingly, the police in the period under review did not ban not even a single Zanu PF rally. The treatment can thus be argued to favour the ruling party to the disadvantage of the opposition.
The case for electoral reforms
Zimbabwe has held disputed elections since independence in 1980 but the disputes have become more pronounced after 2000. This is the year that the opposition MDC nearly snatched power from Zanu PF despite the violent campaign waged by the ruling party.
The police have been partisan and more often than not has arrested opposition activists than Zanu PF functionaries and apparatchiks. To make matters worse, police have hindered opposition parties from effective campaigning particularly when it bans rallies on flimsy grounds.
The ZMC has failed to censure public media from its partisan reporting that favours the ruling party.
This is the same scenario that the opposition in Saturday’s by-elections finds and contest polls under. The more things change the more they have remained the same. The opposition still has to contest against the odds and sometimes register electoral upsets but the electoral field is far from being even.
It remains to be seen if the opposition will this time around perform any better or it has to start a serious campaign for the independence of bodies that runs the elections. Or even demand electoral reforms that include a change to the electoral system to a proportional representation that is equitable and representative of the electorate choices and less contestable.
Cover Photo: File/Africa Blogging