Zimbabwe’s electoral reform politics

By Joram Nyathi

ZIMBABWE is hardly ever too far from election mode. But it also differs from regional countries in another respect: opposition parties are always demanding electoral reforms that they seem to believe will allow them to win.

If they are not preoccupied thus, they are arguing among themselves about forming a coalition which can beat the governing Zanu PF.

It is not surprising therefore that engaged in these diversions, Zimbabwe’s opposition parties rarely have time to campaign for votes, that is, if they have a message to sell beyond talk of democracy.

The next elections are scheduled for around mid-2018 that is about two years away. The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai lost badly in the previous elections in 2013. Since then, it has splintered, and poses little threat to Zanu PF. Then there are a motley other formations, joined last year by Zimbabwe People First led by former Vice President Joice Mujuru.

Justice Rita Makarau, the chair of the country’s elections body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), announced recently that they had, of their own accord, started working on improving administration of elections to avoid disputed outcomes. It is an ambitious undertaking given that demands for these reforms by the opposition now exceed the biblical 10 Commandments, including that Justice Makarau herself should not chair ZEC.

Responding to claims by the opposition that Zanu PF rigs elections by bringing what they claim are ghost voters or by allowing its supporters to vote more than once, Justice Makarau said ZEC was introducing a marking pen to be used by voters instead of them dipping their little finger in a bottle of ink. They were introducing, for the first time, a biometric registration system so that an individual cannot vote twice at the same polling station, and they can only vote at the polling station where they are registered.

Justice Makarau explained how the biometric system made it impossible for one to vote more than once, to allay the fears of the opposition. “The biometric voter registration system means that in addition to details like your date of birth, name and ID number, we are also going to capture some of your biometric features. We will capture your face and fingerprints digitally,” said Makarau.

This way, she said, the biometric “kit will determine whether anyone else with similar fingerprints and image has registered even under another name.” This should ensure the integrity of a brand new voters’ roll, another concession from a dozen or so demands from the opposition.

But they are far from appeased. The complaints are incessant, and growing, sometimes from the sensible to the ridiculous.

Last week, MDC-T spokesman Obert Gutu claimed the 2018 harmonised elections would be rigged. He said the rigging would be achieved through a ballot paper treated with a chemical to produce the desired result.

“I can’t give you the full details, but these are ballot papers that are chemically designed to project a particular result,” he said cryptically when asked by Zimbabwe’s biggest daily newspaper, The Herald, how such a chimera was possible.

The party also recently asked that it be directly involved in the procurement of ballot materials. The list of demands keeps growing from a few “outstanding issues” during the Government of National Unity with Zanu PF between 2009 and 2013 to more than 12 now. They want an independent electoral commission, which ZEC already is in terms of the Constitution; military personnel should not be involved in elections even if they are long retired; they want postal voting for the diaspora and don’t want traditional leaders to be involved in active politics, and it goes on.

Following the split of the MDC-T after its dismal performance in the July 31, 2013, harmonised elections, Tsvangirai recalled about 14 of his party representatives from Parliament for crossing the floor. He then refused to take part in subsequent by-elections until there were electoral reforms, and Zanu PF took the bonus seats on a silver platter, in the process increasing its already unassailable majority.

It is an emaciated MDC-T far outnumbered by Zanu PF now pushing for electoral reforms.

Zanu PF has been uncompromising. “We are not going to legislate ourselves out of power,” Tsvangirai has been told repeatedly. And he has himself to blame. People ask why those electoral demands, if they are genuine, were not captured in the making of the new Constitution in which all political parties and civic society organisations participated. All the parties subsequently voted for the adoption of the Constitution in a referendum in May 2013. Said a political analyst in Harare last week: “They are trying to build a case that the elections won’t be free and fair, which is a tired strategy. Instead of mobilising support for themselves to win elections, the MDC-T is busy trying to throw spanners in the process and trying to cause panic.”

Negotiations to form a “grand coalition” of the opposition to fight Zanu PF in the 2018 have failed to make progress. Big egos appear to stand in the way, opine analysts. Tsvangirai sees himself as the face of the democratic struggle since the formation of his party in 1999 while Mujuru, who claims to bring into the coalition liberation war credentials so badly missing in the MDC, still smells too much like Zanu PF. The other parties do not have the numbers.

The fusionists cannot agree on the leader of the coalition while their juniors desperately want to cling on to their party positions.

Another unfailing demand of theirs is that there must always be Western observers to Zimbabwean elections. These are from the same countries which imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe over the land reform programme and have not hidden their desire for regime change.

The opposition does not trust regional election observers, most of whose governments are former liberation movements still keen to assert their independence. Predictably, there will be more talk of elections and reforms after the 2018 elections. That is Zimbabweans politics.