IN-DEPTH: Free and Fair? Zim voters skeptical as key election nears

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By Linda Mujuru for Global Press Journal

HARARE: Tapiwa Gumbo, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate from Harare, does not plan to vote in Zimbabwe’s elections, which will be held sometime between July and August this year, although the exact date has not been set yet. “I do not have confidence in Zimbabwe’s electoral processes,” she says. “Voting will not change my circumstances.”

As the elections draw near, concerns have been raised by civil society organizations regarding the country’s ability to hold free and fair elections. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, an independent body mandated to manage elections, has been accused of partisanship and alignment to the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the ruling party that has been in power since the country’s independence in 1980. Analysts say concern over the commission’s independence has resulted in people losing confidence in the voting system and has become a major cause of voter apathy.

Like many other young Zimbabweans, Gumbo voted for the first time in Zimbabwe’s historic presidential election in 2018, the first without former President Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country for over three decades. Parliamentary and local government choices also were on ballots for the “harmonized” election, as it’s known locally. That year, new candidates galvanized citizens, drawing over 80% of eligible voters to the polls — an impressive figure for a country where, since the 1990s, turnout had never reached 60%.

But Zimbabweans’ democratic hopes were crushed following reports of vote-counting irregularities and delays. In Harare, where the military was deployed to disperse protesters, at least six people died as a result of post-election violence.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa

After the electoral commission announced that ZANU-PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been Mugabe’s close aide for years, had won the presidential election, the opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, tried to challenge the results in court to no avail.

“I realized voting was a waste of time, as election results are always decided before we vote,” Gumbo says.

The current spate of voter apathy reflects a breakdown of trust between the general public and the electoral commission, says Takunda Tsunga, legal and advocacy officer at Election Resource Centre, an advocacy organization based in Harare. “Citizens no longer believe the current electoral management system can deliver a credible election that expresses the will of the people,” he says. “Since the 2018 harmonized elections, voter turnout in urban areas has averaged around 30 to 35% while dropping to approximately 19% in areas such as Bulawayo.”

The electoral commission’s continued failure to address concerns around vote-buying, violence and intimidation, Tsunga says, has already had a negative effect on voter registration and will have an impact on voter turnout for this year’s harmonized election.

The upcoming election will be key for Zimbabwe. The country’s rising inflation and higher interest rates have further crippled economic growth and resulted in high formal unemployment rates and lower standards of living. According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, the food poverty line, which represents the amount of money required to afford the minimum daily energy intake of 2,100 calories, rose by 29.1% between June and July, last year. If in June 2022 the cost of an individual’s basic food needs was 13,875 Zimbabwean dollars (ZWL) ($20), the sum spiked to 17,909 ZWL ($26) the following month.

This year’s elections will see ZANU-PF compete with the newly formed opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), led by Nelson Chamisa, who contested the authenticity of the election results in 2018.

Pedzisai Ruhanya, director of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a local think tank, says the electoral commission has credibility challenges on account of its partisan nature. “The election management body employs retired soldiers as its workers, including at the highest level,” he says. “The military is closely linked to the ruling elites in Zimbabwe and are accused of partisanship in electoral administration.”

Commissioner Jasper Mangwana

Commissioner Jasper Mangwana says the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s independence is guaranteed in the constitution and its policies come from the commissioners who are appointed by the law. “As long as they [former military members] have resigned, there is no law which bars them to be employees of the commission,” Mangwana says. “What is important is for them to conduct their duties according to the provisions of the law.”

Tsunga says the current constitutional and legislative framework allows for free and fair elections, but he believes the electoral commission has to fully implement the law. “This reluctance [to implement the law] has resulted in the abuse of the rule of law and the partisan implementation of laws meant to ensure open participation in electoral processes,” he says.

Recently, the Election Resource Centre sought a hard copy of the country’s national voters roll to check for anomalies but was told it would have to first pay $187,238, says Barbara Bhebhe, the organization’s director.

Mangwana confirms that the official price per page of the voter roll is $1 but doesn’t find it to be controversial. He says citizens haven’t lost faith in the credibility of the commission and adds that, ahead of this year’s elections, the commission has raised awareness about the electoral process through the distribution of educational material in various languages and radio programs.

“The commission has registered over 73% of the adult population in this country,” Mangwana says. “As long as you see people coming to register to vote, as long as you see politicians campaigning, it means that everyone is aware that the electoral process is free, fair and credible.”

Nyarai Magwaza, an administration professional, says she has voted in the past and will vote again this year, but she does not have confidence in the commission’s ability to hold free and fair elections.

“I am convinced that the results they are going to publish will not be a true reflection of what people would have voted for,” she says.

Magwaza says her stance on the commission is based on past elections, where the delayed announcement of results raised suspicions of rigging.

Tsunga says there are key areas in need of reform. He believes making the voter roll accessible, making the vote-counting process more transparent, curbing the partisan conduct of traditional leaders, and adopting a code of conduct for state security personnel could help improve the quality of the elections.

Until then, prospective voters like Gumbo remain skeptical about voting.

“I will only vote when I believe my vote is worth the count,” she says.