. . . as clock ticks towards polls
BUNGLING by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) in the conduct of the two-day special vote could be a harbinger of worse things to come unless urgent measures are taken to capacitate the commission before the polls, which will take place in under two weeks.
ZEC is now under increasing pressure to restore credibility to the hurried election, which was affected by protracted disputes between ZANU-PF and the two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations.
Zimbabweans are still haunted by the harrowing experience of March 2008 when election results were delayed by over a month.
George Chiweshe, now Judge President, presided over the electoral commission in the 2008 election.Back then, the commission was well-funded and had ample time to prepare for the election, unlike the current situation.
Apart from concerns regarding the independence of its personnel that have dogged ZEC since Chiweshe’s time at the electoral body, more challenges have emerged before the actual voting.
The processes leading up to the elections are still being heavily contested between the parties in and outside the inclusive government, with Prime Minister (PM) Morgan Tsvangirai indicating last week that he was taking part in the poll with “a heavy heart”.
There have been disagreements over the election date, with ZANU-PF’s rivals approaching the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the courts requesting for more time to implement a roadmap that was to precede the elections.
They also decried President Robert Mugabe’s unilateralism in declaring July 31 as the poll date without following a 2011 roadmap agreed with the 15-nation SADC, which chartered a course of reforms to improve conditions for elections.
The proposed reforms included improved voter education and registration, inspection of the voters’ roll, changes to the Public Order and Security Act, media and security sector reforms.
While SADC had advised the coalition partners to approach the courts seeking a two-week poll extension, Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku dismissed the application.
Preparations for the rushed election have also been hampered by lack of funding. Attempts to fundraise in the SADC region and the United Nations drew blanks after the ZANU-PF side of the unity government rejected funding predicated on reforms.
Finance Minister Tendai Biti earlier this month indicated that the election bill had a shortfall of US$85 million from the US$132 million budget drawn up by ZEC.
Justice Rita Makarau, the commission’s chairperson, however, said only US$38,5 million had been released, highlighting the financial limitations
the commission finds itself in.
Despite operating on a shoe-string budget, ZEC is desperate to conduct polls that measure up to SADC’s guidelines and principles on the conduct of elections.
The guidelines stipulate that for polls to be adjudged as democratic there must be full participation of citizens in the political process and equal opportunity to exercise the right to vote and be voted for.
A SADC member country must also ensure the availability of adequate logistics and resources for carrying out the elections.
Among other things, the guidelines also require equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media.
Those administering the elections have been found wanting in all respects. The government media, especially the public broadcaster have been unrelenting in their partisan coverage of events while thousands of eligible voters were unable to register due to the administrative hiccups experienced during voter registration
But the greatest challenge facing ZEC is that of convincing a skeptical nation desperate for a free and fair poll that it would be able to pull it off despite the enormity of the challenges.
ZEC has blamed PM Tsvangirai’s party for some of the logistical challenges.
It argued this week that it was unable to prepare voting material in time for the special voting due to the court applications filed by the MDC-T.
Despite the excuses, observers this week said the elections could be reduced to a charade because of the logistical nightmares encountered during the special voting.
They said anything less than a credible election would fuel intense fighting between the competing political parties while prolonging the Zimbabwe crisis, which SADC and the African Union had hoped to address during the sustenance of the coalition.
Scenes across the country of thousands of police officers unable to cast their vote due to the delays in the disbursement of ballot papers for the special vote held at the weekend have erased whatever good ZEC had achieved.
Prior to that thousands of potential voters were disenfranchised following a shambolic voter registration carried out by the Registrar General’s Office in conjunction with ZEC.
Justice Makarau is, however, still confident that ZEC would deliver.
“The fifth of August is the date on which, come hail, come thunder, we must announce the results. That is what the law says,” she said this week.
Election monitors are not convinced.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) this week said the special voting nightmare was a taste of worse things to come.
Solomon Zwana, ZESN’s chairperson, said: “We foresee doom in the upcoming election if what occurred within the last two days is anything to go by.”
“We therefore urge that adequate resources be availed to ZEC to ensure that the organisation carries out its constitutionally mandated duties.”
Mmachakga Mpho Moruakgomo, the head of delegation from the Southern African Church Leaders, said observers should be cautious in coming up with reports on the conduct of elections, adding that they should canvass views from a broad section of the population.
“We received with concern reports about delays in the registration process and the challenges faced by so-called ‘aliens’ in obtaining identity documents, which would have allowed them to register to vote… More could have been done to inform the nation about the requirements for voter registration. All these issues have disenfranchised thousands of Zimbabweans and are likely to compound voter apathy,” said Moruakgomo.
On Tuesday, David Coltart the secretary for legal affairs in the MDC, said they had been vindicated on their claim that the push for an early poll without leaving enough time to take care of all poll requirements was a recipe for disaster.
“The shocking failure by ZEC to produce ballot papers on time vindicates those of us who said we needed more time to hold a lawful election,” said Coltart.
Tendai Biti, the secretary general of the MDC-T, said the special vote exposed what they have been saying all along, that Zimbabwe is not yet prepared to hold a credible poll.
“The special vote has been the mother of all disasters, exposing what we have known all along: That ZEC was not ready, that technically the country is not ready. If they failed yesterday with 100 000 people what about the millions on the actual polling date?” said Biti.
ZANU-PF spokesperson, Rugare Gumbo, said his party was generally satisfied with the process, even though there were shortcomings “here and there.”
He accused the MDC formations of concentrating on finding faults on the part of ZEC and ZANU-PF.
“We are generally happy with the process. There have been shortcomings here and there, but if you weigh the positives they are 70 percent, 80 percent and the negatives 10 percent, even five percent for that matter,” said Gumbo.
Gumbo also blamed the MDC-T for the chaos during special voting. Asked whether seeking legal recourse was not part of any aggrieved party’s constitutional right, an eventuality that points to the need to have allocated more time to the election roadmap, Gumbo said: “It is their right but they should know the time and place to go to court. They should have known that going to court would delay the production of the voting materials.”
On Tuesday, the United States said it was “deeply concerned” by lack of transparency in preparations for Zimbabwe’s general election and called on the government to ensure the vote was peaceful, fair and credible.
The election will see the third attempt by PM Tsvangirai to unseat President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since its independence from Britain in 1980.
Another disputed poll could see Zimbabwe heading back to tough times that culminated in a decade-year-old political and economic crisis which pushed the nation on the brink of a civil strife.
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