In many respects, the Zimbabwe’s “harmonized” elections will be a key test for the electoral management body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) – and it is not unexpected.
ZEC is an independent body set in accordance with Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution.
The constitution provides for the creation of such independent bodies to deal with matters such as media regulation, human rights, gender and national healing.
ZEC is solely mandated to conduct elections in the country including exercising functions such as registering voters, acquisition of election materials, delimitation (setting of boundaries) and so on.
Yet, in Zimbabwe, ZEC is like a referee in a bad tempered, volatile derby football match.
The woman at the centre of it all is Justice Priscilla Chigumba, a High Court Judge who took up the post in February following the resignation of Rita Makarau.
The country’s political field is dominated by two parties, the ruling ZANU-PF led by incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa and the MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa.
There are up to 55 other contesting parties, 21 other presidential contestants and up to 40 000 contestants for the lower levels of local government to parliamentary and senatorial seats that are up for grabs.
Zanu-PF and MDC have dominated this quinquennial fixture in the past two decades.
Only this time, there will be no Robert Mugabe – the ZANU-PF leader who stepped down last November, and Morgan Tsvangirai, who died of natural causes last February.
This means that the contest is slightly changed, but no less riveting – although there has been palpable change in temperament and other conditions.
In such a polarised environment as Zimbabwe, the elections body has become a target, especially of the opposition and its civic society allies who accuse the body of bias.
On Tuesday, police notified the MDC Alliance that it would not be allowed to picket the offices of the elections body in downtown Harare as the opposition had planned to force ZEC into acceding to its demands.
MDC Alliance held similar demonstrations on June 5 and July 11.
The MDC Alliance is demanding what it calls transparency in the printing, storage and distribution of ballot papers.
The alliance has expressed unhappiness with Justice Chigumba whom opposition accuses of being arrogant and snobbish. (For her own part, Justice Chigumba has said she is following the laws of the country and has refused to bow down to extra-legal demands.)
The alliance has also queried the design and layout of the ballot paper, while also claiming that some special science could make the paper transmute a vote from the opposition’s candidate to his rivals.
However, despite being given ballot papers last week, the alliance has not proved the claims of mutating ballots.
Ahead of this election, ZEC compiled a new voter’s roll using the biometric voter registration system (BVR) which captures a person’s unique features such as fingerprints and face.
The final roll, which was subject to inspection and verification, contains some 5.6 million voters.
The voters’ roll is considered crucial as opposition fears that the ruling party might tamper with the register and include non-existent people – the so-called ghost voters – and eliminate others in opposition strongholds.
However, last week the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a long-time critic of official processes, gave an unlikely shot in the arm for ZEC.
ZESN concluded, after conducting an audit of the voters’ roll, that the register was credible, trashing an earlier report by a shadowy opposition linked group that claimed to have unearthed a quarter of a million “ghost voters”.
But ZESN chairperson Andrew Makoni said in a statement:
“Overall, ZESN finds that the 2018 voters’ roll received on the 18th of June is an improvement over the 2013 preliminary voters’ roll.”
ZESN noted that its audit did not identify any anomalies that affected a large percentage of the registrants.
“In terms of accuracy, the audit did not identify anomalies in the 2018 voters’ roll that affected a large percentage of registrants or were they concentrated amongst registrants of a particular area, gender or age,” he said.
“While no voters’ roll is perfect, a less rushed process would have allowed more time for ZEC to identify and address anomalies.
“The 2018 voters’ roll is more current than the 2013 preliminary voters’ roll as there is a significant number of new registrants, as well as more urban and young registrants and fewer extremely old registrants.
“In terms of completeness, the 2018 voters’ roll is more inclusive than the 2013 preliminary voters’ roll with generally higher registration rates – though registration rates for urban and young voters remain lower than those for rural and older voters.”
The concession by ZESN took a lot of heat from ZEC and pre-emptied serious reservations about the voters’ roll as basis for protests.
On the other hand, another unlikely support came from the European Union whose Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Phillippe van Damme, used his Twitter account to fiercely defend the integrity of the voter’s roll and ZESN’s audit report.
For its own part, the major opposition has not yet published the results of its own audit (just like it has not revealed results of tests on whether the ballot paper has special features that enable it to transmute ballot inks!)
The next few days will be crucial for ZEC which is charged with seeing that the process runs smooth and without incident. The task, admittedly goes well beyond ZEC to include various other stakeholders, political parties and citizenry not least.
According to the elections roadmap, which contains a whopping 71 to-do items from the date of elections proclamation on May 30, only a few items remain on the bucket list.
As of this Thursday (July 26), to do items included deployment for polling dispatch of postal votes to the polling stations, publication of polling stations and D-Day, July 30.
After voting day, the elections body will announce results within five days and review the election.
If July 30 fails to produce a clear winner, that is, a presidential candidate that scores 50 percent + 1 as required by law, Zimbabwe will have a presidential runoff on September 8.
The elections body will deploy thousands of staff across Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces while it will also coordinate political parties and their agents, monitors as well as local and international observers.
For the first time in many years, Zimbabwe is hosting observers from Western countries that had been deemed undesirable by the previous administration of President Mugabe who preferred to have diplomatically friendly countries take part in the exercise.
However, Mnangagwa declared that Zimbabwe “had nothing to hide” and extended invitation to western countries and observer groups.
There already have been hundreds of long term observer groups while others continue trooping in.
A Kofi Annan-led group, The Elders, previously prohibited from touring Zimbabwe by Mugabe, visited Zimbabwe from July 19-21.
Allowing foreign observers is largely seen to be Mnangagwa’s key to ensuring legitimacy in the eyes of the world and move Zimbabwe from the pariah that it was under the former administration.
So far, the decision to allow observers has paid off, with Western commending the openness.