Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections: Transition Fails to Exorcise Mugabe’s Ghost

FNF Zimbabwe's Fungisai Sithole Writes
Opinion20.07.2018Fungisai Sithole
IRIN News
IRIN News

As I pen this article, like many of my fellow Zimbabweans, I am anxious about our country’s future. Zimbabwe continues to exhibit grim and uninspiring uncertainty despite the much celebrated fall of our dictator of 37 years; Robert Mugabe in November 2018. The pre-electoral environment is deceitfully quiet, portraying a contrived serene atmosphere that looks more fragile each passing day. Zimbabwe is heading for its post-Mugabe harmonised elections on 30 July 2018 and the political tension continues to mount with key protagonists seemingly not ready to accept electoral loss.

An election with an unprecedented 23 presidential aspirants and 55 political parties contesting could be a prophetic sign for our growth in democracy, but also a cue to that ZANU PF has a deep-seated strategy of legitimizing apocalyptic elections in the event frustrated key opposition withdraws. The election has failed to attract public confidence and trust in its procedures and processes as initially anticipated. It has remained unyielding and stubborn to facts yet emphasizing a legalistic approach in such an overtly political and emotional process.

Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) recently condemned Zimbabwe’s electoral body; the Zimbabwe Elections Commissions (ZEC) as the biggest threat to the country’s electoral legitimacy. Reason: ZEC has failed to conduct itself in a manner that demonstrates independence, fairness and impartiality. Its aversion to transparency dented opposition’s confidence in the electoral institution – now viewed as a partial referee. To an unknowing and unsuspecting observer, the pre-electoral environment appears peaceful. The opposition has been afforded campaign space even in the previously so-called ‘no go areas’. Political freedoms are thus far not hindered in any way as people freely associate and protest. 

Freedom of speech has improved especially on social media though there are renewed threats of targeting journalists and civic leaders. However, the state broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and its sister radio stations, remains evidently in favour of ZANU PF. News content and the live broadcast of rallies and meetings remain heavily skewed towards the ruling  ZANU PF party. Yet ZBC continues to undermine free expression and access to information. To further blackout the opposition campaigns, it has charged exorbitant prices for campaign advertisements on its only television and multiple radio disguised as ‘community’ stations.

Underlying the superficial ‘peace’ is a dramatic environment; punctuated by spurts of intra and inter-party violence, though, the magnitude of physical confrontation has been strongly subdued. It is an unsafe and scary environment where bomb explosions can be encountered at ZANU PF rallies as was the case in Bulawayo two weeks ago; a bomb allegedly targeting President Mnangagwa. Two people were killed; more than 40 injured, as the prominent ZANU PF minister Oppah Muchinguri chairperson was robbed of her breast. Second Vice President Kembo Mohadi remains hospitalized. Investigations have yielded nothing except violation, trauma and intimidation of Bulawayo youths who have been taken into police custody on trumped up charges. Whilst the Bulawayo bomb explosion can be viewed as just another episode in Zimbabwe’s fragile transition, its implications in a pre-electoral environment, in a country with a history of political violence remains worrisome. It re-enacts the inert memories of fear and violence coupled with subtle intimidation existing countrywide. Opposition claims to have evidence that militia and 5000 soldiers have been deployed into villages disguised as ZANU PF ‘political commissars’.

On its part, opposition has contributed to the drama. The MDC Alliance – a bunch of seven political parties - led by a young charismatic Nelson Chamisa looks set to push ZEC to the gutters in its quest free and fair elections. Two protest marches attracting thousands of activists have been successfully organized so far, bearing pressure on ZEC. Yet ZEC has not budged. The opposition MDC Alliance is in the process of mobilizing supporters for a vigil until elections, protesting ZEC’s failure to deliver a credible election through providing transparency on the voters roll and printing of ballot papers. They are threatening to camp outside ZEC’s offices. This has primed intensity of the environment with one ZEC commissioner claiming to have received death threats on social media.

The superficial peace conceals reality in our rural villages. In a research paper entitled “ZANU PF/Military deterrence of the village vote”, Zimbabwe Democracy Institute on 10 July 2018 claimed that Mnangagwa had unleashed a sophisticated military scheme to instil fear in the electorate. In the research, 81% respondents concurred that there had been an increased presence of identified soldiers in villages mainly in Mashonaland West and Central provinces. Their perceived agenda is to campaign for the ruling ZANU PF. 57% sampled respondents disclosed their embedded fear to vote for opposition.

THE MILITARY

The opposition has claimed that more than 5000 military officials have been unleashed into the villages to mobilise for the ZANU PF vote. ZANU PF has also rejuvenated its infamous militia; known for terrorizing villagers in the 2008 elections, in its mobilization teams in rural provinces of Mashonaland. Zimbabwe Peace Project, a local watchdog raised concerns that harvests of fear planted in the volatile 2008 plebiscite were systematically being used to intimidate the electorate with particular reference being made to the 2008 experiences of political violence. In peri-urban communities, threats of land expropriation from those found voting opposition are a defining character of the ZANU PF campaign. In both their pre- election press engagements, the military and the police have maintained that their role transcends beyond security, entitling them to provide logistical support. The military received their special allowance of 22.5%, 19 days before elections in an effort to influence their vote.

Opposition political parties in Zimbabwe are concerned with the expanded, more active and public role of the military in Government, ZEC and ZANU PF political party structures. It is the same military, who in 2008, led by the current Vice President Chiwenga, denied the late Morgan Tsvangirai victory and held election results hostage for more than one month. This led to the formation of a negotiated Government of National Unity (GNU), a mitigation strategy meant to curb further degeneration of the country into civil catastrophe. These are now the same people alleged to be harassing villagers in rural communities, demanding their voter registration slips for auditing. 

The military has also taken a prominent role in the administration of the country’s electoral body, ZEC and by extension, elections themselves. Priscilla Chigumba, the ZEC Chairperson citing more than 15% of ZEC officers being former military personnel, has also confirmed militarization of ZEC. The opposition insists that former and current military officials constitute over 40% of ZEC’s 383 staff personnel. Intriguing is that, the recently appointed Chief Elections Officer, mandated to deliver the 2018 elections is a former military officer who joined ZEC in 2008 at a time he was still serving in the military. ZEC as employer of the Chief Elections Officer has little control over his work and conduct and ZEC has no power to dismiss him without the approval of the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Since the military assisted transition of November 2017, there has been an increase in militarization of major Government departments through appointment of strategic military personnel to positions of influence. There are fears that the military is the one administering the elections. This became known when police postal ballot voting began whilst ZEC were still finalizing the process, with no knowledge of having begun such a process.

VOTE BUYING

The opposition has also raised concerns about vote-buying tendencies exhibited by the Mnangagwa administration. Other than vote buying through manipulating food aid and farming inputs for the poor and desperate villagers, Mnangagwa recently splashed millions of dollars on 226 brand new ISUZU twin cabs on compliant traditional leaders. This has been interpreted by many as a vote buying strategy for traditional leaders to influence voting patterns in rural communities where they enjoy authority, respect and control of villagers.

Following this gesture of benevolence, the President of the Chief’s Council, Chief Fortune Charumbira completely disregarded constitutional obligation on impartiality and independence of traditional leaders. He made a public call for all traditional leaders to support ZANU PF. Traditional leaders have in the past been known to be a key organizing structure for ZANU PF, mobilizing villagers towards a ZANU PF vote. Civic leaders took to litigation to extract a public apology from him but he defied the court with no consequences. 

THE BALLOT

There are concerns on lack of ZEC’s transparency in procurement, printing of election ballot papers and their security. The opposition has raised questions on the type of paper and ink to be used which they believe was exploited to tamper with the 2013 election outcome. ZEC is inevitably dragging its feet on ensuring public confidence and trust in the ballot. They have chosen a black box, opaque approach in the printing, procurement, storage and distribution of voting material. This comes against a background where ZEC, in 2013, overprinted the ballot paper by 35% against the international standard norm of 10-15%. In this election, there is no meaningful oversight over the printing of ballot papers with stakeholders recently invited but restricted to view the process from a balcony of the printer’s gallery. There was no chemical test of the ballot paper, and not even ballot proofing was done. ZEC has arrogantly refused to meet the opposition demands, citing absence of legal provisions supporting implementation of such demands. 

According to political scientist Dr. Phillian Zamchiya, ZEC can tick the boxes of legal clauses but that will not bring legitimacy, democracy and the stability that Zimbabwe yearns. As Nic Cheeseman points out ‘the methods to rig elections in the digital age are often costly, sometimes scandalous, but often legal’. ZEC has gone further to tilt the structure of the ballot paper to ensure Mnangagwa prominence and advantage over other candidates. David Coltart, a human rights lawyer and opposition political activist alleged that the ballot paper was illegal as it contravened section 57 of the Electoral Act and the Form V10, which has no provision for a second column in the obverse side, as this would disrupt the alphabetical order. ZEC also stand accused of a polling booth shocker where ZEC Mashonaland West elections officer was quoted in the daily Newsday of 16 July 2018, saying the voting booth will be in front of election officials however, at a distance where they will not see how the voter is voting.  The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and Election Resource Centre (ERC) have condemned this strategy as it seriously compromises the secrecy of the ballot. 

THE VOTER'S ROLL

Opposition parties have raised concerns on the new Biometric Voters’ Roll. More than 5.3 million Zimbabweans are registered to vote in the 2018 harmonised elections, in a population of over 13 million. The opposition disputes the authenticity of this figure. Sixty percent of registered voters are between the ages of 18-40 years, a generation born immediately before and after Zimbabwe’s independence of 1980. The opposition alleges that the 2018 voters roll has been contaminated with data from the contested 2013 voters roll. They have further called for an external audit of the voters roll, to establish its legitimacy and authenticity citing irregularities identified through the voter inspection programme of 19-29 May 2018. The opposition cited an example of Mt Darwin Constituency where they identified two hundred, 109yr olds with the same ID cards on the voters roll. Voters rolls handed over to political parties had no biometric data; political parties were given list of names and addresses – registering more than 400 people on one address. When political party’s queried absence of mug shots, ZEC advised them that faces were private hence could not be issued to political parties. The opposition political parties interpreted this as implying that some of the voters on the roll were non-existent.

The Newsday on 10 July 2018, alleged that there were more than 250 000 ghost voters’ roll and double-digit registrants as established by an independent team of Pachedu BVR and data science experts. Whilst the figure was clearly an understatement, it was key in highlighting the irregularities existent in the voters roll. On 10 July 2018, registered voters received unsolicited messages from ZANU PF lobbying for their vote. The messages had clarity on voters’ constituencies, information only ZEC could have provided. Opposition interpreted this as reflective of ZANU PF’s access into the ZEC database, an access that other political players did not enjoy. ZEC snubbed the European Union (EU) offer to fund the external audit as a public confidence measure. Of major concern is that, Mnangagwa proclaimed the date for elections without a ready voters roll. Candidate nomination was done without availing the voters roll to political players, in direct breach of the section 67 of the constitution. Opposition political parties (MDC Alliance, MDCT, CODE, Build, PRC and APA) then released a joint statement on 10 July 2018 accusing the ZEC chairperson of having failed to deliver her mandate and had as such lost public trust in free and fair elections. 

They accused ZEC of distributing an incredible electronic voters roll with irregularities ranging from same identity cards on different faces, same identity cards for different people, many people on addresses that do not exist, too many people on one address, too old people that can’t still be alive, candidates nominated but not appearing on the Voters’ roll. They further accused ZEC of distributing different rolls to political parties.

THE POLLING STATIONS

Zimbabwe’s Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) process was polling station based, immediately allocating registrants to their voting station. Albeit this was so, ZEC unilaterally increased polling stations by more than 500, an issue that has riled the opposition as they question the purpose and function of these extra stations. BVR experts accuse ZEC of setting up shady polling stations. According to the Electoral Act, an average polling station is expected to have a maximum of 1000 voters and covering a radius of at least 2 km. Surprisingly,  according to the Pachedu BVR audit, 241 polling stations have less than 100 voters. Eight of these had less than 10 voters ascribed to it. The least being Kudzwe turn off tent with only two voters. Opposition MDC Alliance and other parties questioned the rationale of having such polling stations unless they were meant for rigging purposes. Cases of voters registered in constituencies they do not reside in were also high.

CONCLUSION

Despite all the outlined misgivings, Zimbabwe’s elections will be held on 30 July and only an earthquake can stop them, says the ZEC chairperson Priscilla Chigumba. 30 July will mark Zimbabwe’s transition, which will likely remain tumultuous under a Mnangagwa and military victory. Chamisa brings a refreshing break from the military tentacles, but despite his massive popularity, he might not be allowed to take over state power, as has happened before, and if his threats are anything to go by, Zimbabwe’s post-election environment will be a torrid and painful one. Envisaged rigging of gigantic proportions will not bring Zimbabwe its peace and stability it desperately yearns for.