How Authoritarian Electoral Democracies Thrive - Zimbabwe

Biometric Voter Registration for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections
Issues28.09.2017Fungisai Sithole
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Since the year 2000, Zimbabwe’s elections have been openly disputed. Disappointingly, unlike in Kenya this year, no court in Zimbabwe has ever concurred with the opposition’s concerns and its highlighted irregularities. The disputes have ranged from gerry meandering, voter intimidation, to being as extreme as ballot paper stuffing allegations. Zimbabwe is preparing for its 2018 harmonised elections, which according to law must be held between 23 July and 21 August 2018. Whilst no key reforms have been made regarding leveling the playing field, the Mugabe led government has agreed to use the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system. The issue then turns to other tactics that are surfacing to control the election results.

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A sad precursor to these elections has been the amendment of the Electoral Act through invoking the outdated and controversial Presidential Powers, State and Liabilities Act. An act of law used to subvert the democratic law making process by Parliament, by rendering it irrelevant. Through the Government Gazette of September 8, 2017, Mugabe published the proclamation, setting September 14, 2017 to January 15, 2018 as the four month period for the BVR registration process. Mugabe’s use of such powers in electoral processes is not new. In 2013, through the Presidential Powers Act, Mugabe unlawfully and unilaterally proclaimed the date for the 2013 elections sidelining his Government of National Unity (GNU) counterparts. This expedited proclamation came in before the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) had fully completed the procurement of the BVR equipment. Currently servers for storage of data collected from the BVR system have not been purchased, creating a risk of loss of voters’ data. Bellin, the CEO of Laxton Group has criticised ZEC’s approach saying buying the BVR kits without the central system was like “buying a car without an engine,” because it was the driver and crux in managing the collected data. 

Questions are already being raised on where ZEC is keeping the data from the BVR process. ZEC has recently been accused of trying to clandestinely bring back NIKUV, an Israel data company credited for ‘rigging’ the 2013 elections, to be responsible for data storage and collations. Furthermore, the tender specifications on the BVR equipment advertised by the United Nations Development Programme did not include supply or setting-up of the central system, which clearly shows that ZEC has its hidden plan for data processing and storage.  The Laxton Group that won the tender to supply BVR kits has thus far delivered 400 of the required 3000 BVR kits, 2600 kits are yet to be delivered.  ZEC’s circus follows that it snubbed EU support for the development of the voters roll as it wanted complete control of it. It insisted on funding this process, and rejected help, yet it is well known that the fiscal and monetary space is suppressed and the government fails to pay its civil servants on time, to top it off, the country is reeling in debt. This can only point towards a strategy for the development of electoral tricks and shenanigans. Of the 400 kits received, ZEC has only deployed 63 kits countrywide. 9600 centres are still to receive kits yet registration is already underway. Concerns have been raised on distribution of the functional 63 registration centres as skewed towards encouraging a rural vote and frustrating the urban votes. ZEC has unveiled a schedule of voter registration centres with urban centres such as Bulawayo and Harare having between 1 and 2 stations, whilst rural provinces had up to 8 centres each. ZEC is seeking to register 7 million voters yet, by Thursday 21 September less than 4000 Zimbabweans had registered countrywide. Whilst it is still early, this could be reflective of the apathy shrouding Zimbabweans. This coupled with ZEC’s strategy of excluding and discouraging registration can only point towards an election in favour of ZANU PF. The introduction of BVR without adequate resources is a strategy meant to disenfranchise the opposition. So many hitches marked the initial days and still continue. Senator Coltart, an MDC activist and MP candidate took 2 hours to register as the BVR machine could not read his finger prints. ZEC officials say ideally registration should take 5 minutes but that has not been the case so far. As such, frustrating long queues can be witnessed outside the few centres in operation. ZEC will develop a new voters’ roll through this process but is adamant that it will not change the 2013 delimitation; electoral boundaries will be based on the old and discarded voters roll, boundaries will not be based on the scientific data from the voter registration process. This coupled with images of Rita Makarau, the ZEC Chairperson, kneeling to Robert Mugabe in submission at State House on the commissioning of BVR all point towards a captured ZEC.  Its independence, has been, and remains, a topic of discussion. 

The MDC Alliance, a coalition of seven political parties submitted an urgent court application seeking to nullify Mugabe’s amendment of Electoral Act through use of Presidential Powers Act. The application was dismissed as not ‘urgent enough’.