Maverick Citizen

COUNTDOWN TO AUGUST 23 OP-ED

With two weeks to go, questions again loom over whether Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections will be free and fair

With two weeks to go, questions again loom over whether Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections will be free and fair
Supporters of Zimbabwean President and Zanu-PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa attend an election campaign rally in Harare, Zimbabwe, 9 August 2023. Zimbabweans will cast their votes on 23 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Aaron Ufumeli)

Zimbabwean elections are challenging to manage, yet their importance cannot be understated. Harmonised elections in 2008 showed how much a contentious election can lead to violence, deep-seated polarisation and unrest. Yet, as the country enters the final stages of the 2023 electoral cycle, history seems to be repeating itself. 

Recent incidents in Zimbabwe’s 2022 by-elections, including the improper use of police forces, have amplified concerns of a systemic misuse of power. Recent repressive legal reforms, such as the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act (popularly known as the Patriotic Act), further criminalise opposition and dissident opinions – all under the guise of protecting national interest. 

The country is faced with the challenge of finding a solution to its key electoral problem: how can the country ensure fair, free, and credible elections? How would this be possible in the sociopolitical climate in which the outcomes of the elections do not reflect the will of the people, and the electoral system in general manipulates the people’s will, ability, and capacity to vote? 

A first impulse response might bring social and political actors committed to finding solutions to look for the devil in the electoral system and push for legal and administrative changes. Indeed, there are key structural reforms that would bring Zimbabwe a step closer to resolving its electoral challenges, although it is premature to catalogue the current electoral system as inefficient – it has yet to be tested to its fullest potential.

For instance, the Electoral Act should be reviewed to ensure greater independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) as the civilian body it ought to be. That is because the ZEC is perceived as being not only too close to the government (eg, its regulation should not need ministerial authorisation) but also increasingly co-opted by the military. Allegations that ZEC servers are hosted by army-owned telecommunications company Africom have only intensified the generalised lack of trust towards the institution and, thus, to the process and outcome of elections.

Other examples of necessary reforms include facilitating voting for Zimbabweans living abroad, allowing for equitable and fair media coverage of political parties, and implementing in law and practice regionally agreed-upon principles such as the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, as well as the African Union’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act and other repressive legislation such as the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill, currently awaiting presidential assent, lead to the erosion of democratic and civic space. However, flawed elections in a country are not the result of one legal mishap, but rather of a multiplicity of concurrent factors that require individual attention for an integrated solution. 

In Zimbabwe, these factors include disenfranchisement, apathy, lack of trust in the elections monitoring body’s independence from the government and military, lack of judicial independence, fears of violence, impunity and disengagement from the regional and international community.

Political culture

Looking at these issues, it becomes evident that addressing the challenge of flawed elections in Zimbabwe begs to bear in mind the national political culture, which has traditionally been averse to free and fair electoral contestation. Hinging on intolerance, violence and rigging, it is poised to go to extremes to maintain the status quo and keep the incumbent government in power.

Political culture, just like Rome as the popular saying goes, was not built in a day; thus, it will take time to redress it. It is widespread attitudes and practices underpinning the flawed democratic process that need urgent – albeit sustained – attention: ie, conflation of political and institutional bodies, violence with impunity, co-optation of civilian structures by the military, polarisation and pervasive lawfare. If these are not directly tackled, any attempt at reform will fail.

First and foremost, elections should be governed by transparency at all stages. 

Whatever is wrong with the electoral process needs to be exposed through the channels that the system in place allows, eg, by mounting access to information requests as per the Freedom of Information Act. Transparency has the power to force greater compliance with the legal frameworks and make the case to challenge irregular results. In this sense, a Protect the Vote campaign must be put in place so that polling agents and observer missions can adequately monitor and track the counting and transmissions of results to avoid voter manipulation.

The voter does not only need to be protected, but actively encouraged. 

Young Zimbabweans, highly disenchanted with the national democratic project, need to see the economic and security costs associated with their participation in elections lowered, and be given resources that enable their participation. But beyond that, they need to believe in a future democratic country. Youth must be engaged not only on the ethereal social media realm but also on the ground, through strong networks and structures.

None of that can be achieved if there is not one hopeful narrative that frames elections in a positive light and muffles all the noise generated by partisans of the status quo and their violence. Naturally a divisive political process, elections have elicited violent acts from certain groupings before and have laid bare the existing toxicity and polarisation in Zimbabwean society, fostered and stoked by political actors and security forces alike. Then, democracy is not simply about casting a vote every so many years. Democracy finds its roots at the heart of political parties and movements, where its main tenets ought to be integrated. 

In practical terms, this means parties in a democratic system should refrain from ill-using and co-opting state institutions – courts, the administration, armed and security forces – for their own political gain, as there can be no win-win scenario for any party. 

In a democratic state, police would not prevent opposition forces from accessing rural constituencies against court orders, as is the case in the current election, where the Zimbabwe Republic Police has banned at least 65 Citizens Coalition for Change  rallies through largely misreading and misapplying the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act.

Similarly, courts cannot uphold amendments and bills contrary to constitutionally enshrined rights and freedoms.

Looking into the future, whenever free, fair and credible elections are achieved, the outcomes of which can be assumed by all parties, Zimbabwe will need to be ready for a transfer of power. A ready-to-deploy mechanism allowing for a peaceful transfer of power will be crucial in guaranteeing stability and sustaining the democratic progress. Co-developed and supported by regional partners, this mechanism should include, among other provisions, security guarantees for the outgoing and incoming administrations, mediation and guarantor mechanisms and arrangements for a transitional phase.

Toxicity and polarity in a political system can be turned around if all relevant parties (ie, civil society, political actors, and regional powers like the SADC or the African Union) accept that they have a critical part to play.

Civil society organisations have seen their space for manoeuvre constrained through active lawfare from the incumbent government. Still, they have a key responsibility to demand greater transparency, mobilise and repoliticise the youth, and act as a watchdog to the ZEC through parallel tabulation of results and observation missions. This includes confronting political parties on the substance of their programmes and manifestos beyond focusing on technical issues concerning the Electoral Act.

Part of the solution

Political parties, as key stakeholders in elections, should be part of the solution as well. Parties have the duty to propose substantive and solid propositions for socioeconomic turnaround, and not drive identity politics that further root polarisation in society. Simmering under the surface, such polarisation eventually transforms into violence, which should always be shunned as a zero-sum game favouring no party.

It is precisely in the interest of neighbouring and regional powers to respond to embedded polarisation and electoral violence as well as contested elections. If stability in the SADC region is a priority, a vicious cycle of coups and revolutions should always be avoided. Thus, regional powers must engage national authorities to follow and implement existing regional and international guidelines on the correct functioning of elections and on democratic governance. It is within the region’s power to raise the economic and political costs of flawed elections.

In sum, in a highly polarised, contested, and militarised context like the one in Zimbabwe, law-based electoral reforms alone are not enough to guarantee an environment conducive to free and fair elections, as the law is not self-executing, and courts are not independent. A deeply entrenched political culture will always trump any structural administrative or legal reform. 

That is why changes in generalised attitudes and practices, like the ones that have been suggested here, need to be slowly but surely enacted if Zimbabwe is ever to resolve the critical question of how to hold elections that are free from violence and manipulation, fair to all political representations, and credible to the eyes of Zimbabweans and the international community alike. It comes down to a matter of ensuring social cohesion and political stability in Zimbabwe, but ultimately of peace. 

For the nation’s future and citizens, the struggle for Zimbabwe’s democratic soul must be addressed now. DM

Dr Musa Kika is the Head of Office (Barcelona) and Director of External Relations for the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFIT). Musa most recently served as Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Zimbabwe’s biggest civil society coalition of human rights groups, where he also served as Secretary of the National Transitional Justice Working Group.

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