Zimbabwe Elections: 13 Dimensions of Unfairness

Image: Flickr, Commonwealth Secretariat
Image: Flickr, Commonwealth Secretariat

The largest independent observer group during the controversial parliamentary polls, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, summarises its findings in a recently completed report

THE Harare government promised that parliamentary polls this March would be free and fair, following widespread condemnation of the 2000 and 2002 parliamentary and presidential elections, which the opposition is still challenging in the high court.

After Zimbabwe signed up to SADC’s principles governing democratic elections last August, there were some improvements in the electoral process, including the formation of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and the Electoral Court; a decrease in overt state-controlled election violence; some opening of the state broadcasting media a month before the election; accreditation of more domestic observers; and some administrative changes, such as voting on a single day.

However, flaws remained which are unacceptable in any country that wishes to be seen as democratic. The electoral commission was set up too late and had too little power to carry out its role; Zimbabweans living abroad were denied the right to vote (except government officials); intimidation persisted; voter education was inadequate; laws suppressing freedom of movement, association and information were firmly enforced; the voters’ roll was inaccurate; the counting of votes was not transparent; and the ZEC has not yet made public its tabulation of results at polling stations or the numbers and distribution of postal votes. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), which observed the election at about 75% of the country’s voting stations, has concluded that the March 2005 elections were not free and fair, and failed to comply with the SADC election principles.

  • ‘Establish impartial, all-inclusive, competent and accountable national electoral bodies staffed by qualified personnel, as well as competent legal entities including effective constitutional courts to arbitrate in the event of disputes arising from the conduct of elections;
  • Safeguard the human and civil liberties of all citizens including the freedom of movement, assembly, association, expression and campaigning as well as access to the media on the part of all stakeholders, during electoral processes;
  • Take all necessary measures and precautions to prevent the perpetration of fraud, rigging or any other illegal practices throughout the whole electoral process, in order to maintain peace and security; and,
  • Ensure the transparency and integrity of the entire electoral process by facilitating the deployment of representatives of political parties and individual candidates at polling stations.’

Zimbabwe violated all these and other provisions of the SADC guidelines. After the Mauritius summit, the Zimbabwe government unilaterally imposed piecemeal changes to the electoral legislation without attempting to make the necessary amendments to the constitution. The opposition in parliament and broader civil society outside parliament were largely ignored. There were 13 serious failings in the run-up to and during the elections in March:

1) Weakness of ZEC. The principal functions of ZEC include conducting voter education, compiling the voters’ roll and administering the elections. However, ZEC was only appointed two months before the elections, with little time and inadequate resources to conduct voter education. ZEC was also appointed when inspection of the voters’ roll was closing. Hence, the highly contentious voters’ roll was compiled by the Registrar General’s Office, as in previous elections. Other electoral bodies with powers derived from the constitution, including the Electoral Supervisory Commission and the Delimitation Commission, have more authority than ZEC.

2) Repressive legislation. The Public Order and Security Act remained intact, severely restricting the work of both the opposition and civil society, by effectively denying them the ability to hold planning meetings or campaign rallies without police permission. The new Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act gives ZEC the sole authority to conduct voter education. Civil society organisations wishing to conduct voter education have to seek authority from ZEC. All foreign funding for civic organisations for voter education must be channelled through the ZEC.

3) Coercion of voters. While overt state-sponsored and state-sanctioned violence was significantly reduced, credible reports of intimidation remained, in particular through the politically biased distribution of food.

4) State control of media. The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) was used to close nearly all privately-owned media. The electronic media are wholly state-run and highly partisan. Although a statute was introduced to allow slightly fairer coverage in the electronic media a month before the election, records show that the media remained biased towards the ruling party.

5) Gerrymandering of constituencies. The Delimitation Com-mission completed its task long before the inspection of the voters roll and did not appear to take into consideration the population census, natural geography or community interests. In an apparent case of gerrymandering, three constituencies from opposition strongholds were deleted and three new constituencies were created in ruling party strongholds. The new constituency of Harare South, for example, absorbed a small light industrial and low density residential area (pro-MDC) into a much larger farm resettlement area (pro-government).

6) Restrictions on foreign observers. The SADC election principles require observers to be invited at least three months in advance, but the SADC team was invited only a month before the election. Regional observer teams who criticised previous Zimbabwean polls, including the SADC Parliamentary Forum and the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, were not invited. However, local observers fared better: over 6,000 ZESN observers were accredited and in good time, up from 400 local observers in 2002.

7) Rejection of poll workers. The conduct of the election on voting day itself also fell below internationally accepted standards. On the eve of the election, officials of the ruling Zanu-PF party rejected more than 800 civil servants, mainly teachers, who had been seconded to conduct the elections on the allegation that they were supporters of the opposition.

8) Rejection of independent observers. On election day, several accredited ZESN observers were prevented from entering polling stations by local presiding officers during the first three hours, when most ballots were cast. Reasons given included that the presiding officers had not been authorised by their superiors to allow ZESN observers access.

9) Rejection of voters. A nationwide average of 10% of voters were prevented from voting. Officials gave various reasons for denying people their vote, saying their names were not on the voters’ roll, they were in the wrong constituency or they had inadequate identity documents. At the start of counting, accredited ZESN observers were chased away from several polling stations until we intervened. The counting revealed numerous spoilt ballots. In several constituencies the difference between the winner and the loser was less than the number of people turned away.

10) Failure to post results. To date, ZEC has not made public official copies of tabulation of results at polling stations and constituency level as well as the numbers and distribution of postal votes, which is both required by Zimbabwe law and is internationally recognised as a key method to prevent fraud.

11) Polling stations not on neutral ground. ZESN also noted with concern that a number of polling stations were adjacent to police or military camps or the homes of traditional leaders, which is a violation of agreed standards.

12) Flawed constitution favours incumbent. The Zimbabwe constitution entrenches unfairness by enabling the president to appoint to parliament 20 non-constituency MPs and 10 chiefs. These extra 30 pro-government MPs will enable the ruling party to amend the national constitution at will.

13) Discrepancies between government and observer counts. Of greater concern, in many constituencies the figures provided by ZEC at the end of polling did not tally with the final figures announced. ZESN compared the results announced at each polling station with figures announced on national television. Two academics, a population scientist and a statistician, were consulted to go through all ZESN results and compare them with those from ZEC. The academics also went through all the original forms submitted by ZESN observers to check for quality. Their analysis was then sent to an independent consultant in South Africa to review the quality of the work. In 53% of constituencies, there were moderate or large variances between our data and the announced results. Large variances occurred in 25.2% of constituencies. This could be due to lack of data on postal votes, limited access and transparency in tabulating results at constituency and national level, or electoral fraud.

In many constituencies these variances may not have affected the overall outcome, but we concluded that the opposition may have been deprived victory in several constituencies. In five constituencies, where ZESN had a lot of observers and its data showed victory should have gone to the opposition, the ZEC declared Zanu-PF the winner: Chipinge South, Buhera South, Makoni East, Mutasa South and Gwanda. In three other constituencies, where ZESN had fewer observers, there also were significant discrepancies: Gweru Rural, Harare South and Zhombe.

Reforms needed

Flawed elections are the source of roughly half the conflicts in Africa, as genuine election grievances are frequently ignored and provoke violence. It happened in Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea-Bissau and now Togo. The cost of the wars in those countries far exceeded what it would have cost for Africa to assure that elections were genuinely free and fair.

In Zimbabwe there is an urgent need for a new constitution that will take into account the election concerns of all sections of the population and strengthen fundamental freedoms and rights, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.

The new constitution should also include previously agreed electoral reforms, including the creation of a single constitutionally-derived, well-resourced, independent electoral commission as in most of the SADC region; a mixed Westminster and proportional representation system; limits on the role of the military in the electoral process; simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections; and the abolition of appointed parliamentarians.

Dr Reginald Matchaba-Hove, ZESN chairperson