Maverick Citizen


There cannot be any confidence in Zimbabwe’s upcoming polls ‒ and their quality matters enormously

There cannot be any confidence in Zimbabwe’s upcoming polls ‒ and their quality matters enormously
Members of the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front Union ( Zanu PF ) Women's league at the National Heroes Acre for the Heroes Day commemorations at the National Heroes Acre in Harare, Zimbabwe, 12 August 2019. The day is set aside to remember the sacrifice that was shown by the men and women who died in the liberation war that led to the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980. EPA-EFE/AARON UFUMELI

An audit of the country’s pre-election environment through a series of election policy discussions on every aspect of the electoral process came to unanimously negative conclusions. It pointed out that many recommendations from international observers from the 2018 elections had been ignored, as had most of the recommendations by the Election Resource Centre and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network. But it cannot be business as usual.

Elections in Zimbabwe since 2000 have not passed the test of best practice. Each one has led to electoral disputes in the courts and negative reporting by reputable election observer groups. 

However, the political context was very different in each of those elections. Some of them (2000, 2005 and 2013) took place after long periods without civil strife, while others were held in a climate of economic turmoil or serious political violence (2002, 2008 and 2018). 

In each of those elections the pre-election periods were very different, as were the polls. And apart from 2008, every election saw Zanu-PF elected into government.

The election in 2023, however, takes place in a wholly different context. First, the country has not been in such dire circumstances before, with inflation rising rapidly, the economy sagging to unprecedented depths, food insecurity at world-beating levels and most of the population living below the poverty line. Scarcely the conditions in which a government is likely to be re-elected.

The consequences for Zimbabwe and the region are too serious for it to be business as usual following another failed Zimbabwean election.

Second, all the political forces in the country are in disarray. 

Despite the rhetoric, both Zanu-PF and the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) are fragmented, fractious and deeply distrusted by the general population. For example, an Afrobarometer survey in 2022 indicates that only 27% support Zanu-PF, 26% the CCC and 46% are “reticent” (would not vote, refused to answer, or didn’t know).

With so much at stake, it is obvious that the quality of this election, and the effect that this can have in moving the country from international disfavour to re-engagement, matters enormously. 

It cannot be business as usual. 

To determine whether these elections can meet the standards of best practice, the Sapes Trust and the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) have undertaken an audit of the pre-election conditions, and the probability that Zimbabwe will pass the test. 

During the course of nine policy dialogues, 26 local, regional and international election experts have discussed every aspect of the electoral process leading up to the 2023 poll. The discussions ranged from technical issues, such as the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), delimitation and the voters’ roll, to the more citizen-critical issues like political violence, press and media freedom, and the role of the courts in elections.

Audit of the pre-election environment

Analysis of the nine previous election policy dialogues was organised around the five pillars originally posed in the first dialogue in August 2022. The conclusions from this dialogue were unanimously negative, pointing out that many recommendations for international observers from 2018 had been ignored, as had most of the recommendations made by the Election Resource Centre (ERC) and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN). Between the participants, they identified the following major problems:

  • The lack of independence in the ZEC remains a significant concern;
  • Voter registration remains a concern, both because of the low uptake by citizens and the difficulties in getting identity documents;
  • The non-availability of the voters’ roll and the impeding of independent audits remain problems;
  • Voter education remains constrained and unduly controlled; and
  • The extreme political polarisation in Zimbabwe creates unfavourable political tensions for the holding of peaceful elections, as well as making the likelihood of a level playing field remote.

Ten months later, it was evident from the discussion on 4 May 2023 that very little has changed. The one aspect not covered in the initial discussion was district delimitation, but as is evident from the two dialogues on delimitation, this has been wholly unsatisfactory: the report was disowned by a majority of the ZEC commissioners and is the subject of court challenges. Analyses of the report indicate poor compliance with the constitution. 

Additionally, the refusal by the ZEC to make the voters’ roll available for independent audit has similarly led to a court challenge. 

In many ways, the pre-election process looks worse than it did in 2018.

For those not familiar with the arcane world of boundary delimitation in Zimbabwe, the process is the exercise ahead of an election where the electoral commission divides the country into constituencies so that every constituency has the same number of voters. This can never be perfect, because voters move, populations in wards and districts change, etc, so the Zimbabwean constitution allows some variance (20%). There was great concern that the ZEC had interpreted the variance rule to accept a 40% variance.

The analysis of the five pillars – information, inclusion, insulation, integrity and irreversibility – and the assessment of these received general assent from the participants, although assigning a pass/fail grade as the overall measure was felt to be insufficiently nuanced, as there had been some minor improvements. 

The registration blitz, the relaxation of ID requirements, the partial opening of the media space (local radio) and the establishment of quotas for women and young people needed to be noted. However, many problems were still evident.

Pillar 1: Information

This pillar refers to the openness of the media to reflecting the multiple perspectives of the electoral contestants. It also refers to the need for a non-partisan state press and media. It also refers to the ability of citizens to engage with politicians and attend meetings and rallies without fear and constraint. 

The issue being addressed here is the extent to which the basic freedoms are present for citizens in the pre-election period: speech, assembly and association. 

The following problems were identified in the dialogues:

  • Multiple recommendations have been made by domestic and international observers about the need to ensure a non-partisan public press and media;
  • The degree to which journalists self-censor out of fear, and the risks in reporting and attending public meetings. It was evident from the discussions that freedom of expression, movement and association are severely restricted for the independent press and media;
  • Meetings of the CCC are banned or disrupted, sometimes violently;
  • The levels of hate speech, and the casting of opposition political parties as enemies, preclude the notion that this is a competition to persuade the citizenry which party has the best policies to govern the country and meet their aspirations;
  • Citizens both fear elections and elect not to participate other than by voting; and
  • The Private Voluntary Organisations Act will affect domestic observation of elections and the inhibiting of independent collection of data – especially about the counting of votes about the election.

Pillar 2: Inclusion 

Inclusion refers to the notion that elections are about free and equal participation in the electoral process. It refers to the ability of citizens to register as voters, to obtain information (directly and indirectly), to be free from intimidation and violence, and for all forms of partisanship to be absent. 

The following problems were identified in the dialogues:

  • The impunity of state institutions;
  • The partisan behaviour of traditional leaders;
  • The partisan nature of institutions, such as the Zimbabwe Republic Police, that should be tasked with ensuring inclusion and insulation;
  • The role of youth militia;
  • Political violence, and all the other methods of inhibiting free participation in elections – intimidation, hate speech, partisan access to resources and judicial harassment – were all flagged as worsening; and
  • Concerns about the partisan behaviour of traditional leaders, and the frank statements by traditional leaders about support for Zanu-PF in flagrant violation of the constitution.

Pillar 3: Insulation

Insulation refers to both the ability to freely register as a voter and to freely vote, which have been problems in most elections in the past two decades. 

The following problems were identified in the dialogues:

  • The right to register has been impeded by the difficulty in getting the requisite identity documents necessary for registration as a voter;
  • Discrimination in favour of rural residents in getting access to identity documents and registering as voters;
  • Continued complaints about the allocation of polling stations between rural and urban areas, and often the very long delays for urban voters;
  • The need to improve the transparency of the counting process and remove the insistence that only the ZEC is entitled to publish results;
  • Little evidence that the recommendations by local and international observers have been taken on board by either the ZEC or the government;
  • The role of domestic observers is crucial in the effectiveness of outside observers, since few of the latter can provide the breadth of cover or the extended time that domestic observers can; and
  • The Private Voluntary Organisations Act will seriously impede domestic observation through the burdensome conditions imposed on NGOs.

Pillar 4: Integrity

Integrity refers to the impartiality and accountability of the election management body, the ZEC. Integrity also requires all institutions to evince impartiality and accountability through the entire electoral cycle, covering all the antecedent conditions for the vote, the counting and reporting of the outcome, and through to the transparent and impartial dealing with disputes by the courts. 

The following problems were identified in the dialogues:

  • The lack of independence in the ZEC remains a significant concern. There were frequent references to the apparently partisan affiliation of some of the commissioners, and to the presence of staff who have unclear affiliation to the military;
  • Voter registration remains a concern, both because of the low uptake by citizens and the difficulties in getting identity documents;
  • The non-availability of the voters’ roll, and the impeding of independent audits remains a problem, as in the past;
  • Voter education remains constrained and unduly controlled;
  • The failure of best practice on delimitation and an absence of impartiality and equality; and
  • Representativeness, non-discrimination and transparency.

Pillar 5: Irreversibility

Irreversibility refers to several things. 

First, that there is no reversing or tampering with results: the count and the outcome must reflect the will of the people. Second, it refers to the acceptance of the results by the loser. Irreversibility also deals with the judicial process in the management of disputes – effectively the extent to which the courts, both lower and higher, are wholly independent in dealing with disputes. 

The following problems were identified in the dialogues:

  • Partisan judicial processes, both during the pre-election process and in electoral petitions;
  • Undue delaying of petitions;
  • Unnecessary and harmful curtailing of petitions;
  • Weaponising of the judicial system through spurious prosecutions (Mahere) or denial of bail (Sikhala); and
  • Failure to follow through on judgments (Charumbira and contempt).

A major point in the discussion was over the publication of results and the final authority of the ZEC in publishing results. The point was made that once the count has taken place, the returning officer and the party representatives have agreed on the result, and the V11 form is posted outside the polling station, should the general public, the press and observers not be entitled to collect and collate results as they come in? 

This is common practice in many countries and, as pointed out in one dialogue, took place in Kenya. 

There was disagreement over the desirability of independent collating and reporting on results. One view was that this leads to greater confidence in the electoral process, while the contrary view was that this will lead to dispute and should be left only to the ZEC.

An additional point raised was the lack of a transitional mechanism in finalising the election and establishing the government, as is increasingly the case in many countries. This describes a set of legal procedures to be followed after the final count, and not merely declaring the winner and swearing in the president.


The objective behind this election policy dialogue series was to arrive at a clear understanding about whether the country was ready to meet national, regional and international best practice requirements on the holding of elections. The standards to meet the criteria of best practice are laid down in Zimbabwe’s constitution and its Electoral Act, but should also conform to the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections as well as the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance of the African Union. There are also the recommendations given repeatedly by international observer groups, by one count 114 of these, after the 2018 elections.

The short answer is that this audit suggests that there cannot be any confidence in the forthcoming elections. The conclusions for each of the pillars is that there are severe deficits for each and every one, and the examination of how each pillar reinforces each other amplified this. 

In many ways, the pre-election process looks worse than it did in 2018, and many forms of bad electoral practices not seen in the past two elections – in 2013 and 2018 – have returned with memories of the very bad elections in 2000, 2002 and 2008. 

This pre-election audit indicates that the conditions for a free and fair election are absent, and there is little possibility that the multiple reforms necessary can be achieved in the short time remaining. 

Thus, the kinds of recommendations that can be made must focus on what must be done to deal with a flawed election. There seems little doubt now, with the decision by the constitutional court dismissing the application to set aside the delimitation, that elections will take place, underlining the concerns raised in the elections policy dialogue about all the secrecy around setting the date for the elections this year.

If the hopes that an election can cure the country from the effects of the coup and restore the country to legitimacy and international re-engagement cannot be met, then the focus must shift to a more political process, and one in which the international community – regional, continental and international – must play a significant part. 

The consequences for Zimbabwe and the region are too serious for it to be business as usual following another failed Zimbabwean election. As pointed out elsewhere, Zimbabwe has reached its “Lancaster” moment. The desperate citizens deserve better than more form without content – they deserve a serious intervention to lift them from increasing penury and hardship. DM

Ibbo Mandaza is Director of the SAPES Trust and Tony Reeler is Senior Researcher at the Research and Advocacy Unit.


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