LAST week, several Zimbabwean journalists, including myself, attended an election seminar at the Johannesburg-based Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in preparation for ZimbabweR
17;s general election.
A senior official of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa voiced grave concern about Zimbabwe’s flawed electoral system. He said although the media had helped to expose Zimbabwe’s repression, human rights abuses and misrule, it had not done much in-depth coverage on the electoral process.
He said the media should provide comprehensive coverage to make a clear and compelling case for reform in Zimbabwe and, in the process, deny regional leaders such as President Thabo Mbeki an opportunity to claim elections could be free and fair under current conditions.
True to form, the journalists reacted defensively, saying they were doing their work effectively. One said Mbeki’s position on Zimbabwe was not really influenced by lack of information, but by his own political designs, whatever they were. In view of this, I felt it might be useful to explore Zimbabwe’s institutional arrangements and electoral process in general ahead of the March 31 poll.
Elections are not just a function of the range and quality of liberties guaranteed voters by the constitution, but are also defined by the overall institutional framework within which they take place. Studies have shown that voters’ behaviour is largely influenced by their institutional and sociological environment. The question of whether a country is democratic or not is ultimately settled by the quality of its electoral system.
The primary legislation governing the conduct of elections in Zimbabwe dates back to the pre-independence Electoral Act of 1979. Even though the Act has been amended many times, its foundation remains. Five principal bodies run elections: — the Delimitation Commission, the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC), the Election Directorate; the registrar-general of elections’ office, and the newly formed Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
The Delimitation Commission and the ESC are constitutional, while the other three are statutory bodies. The people who serve on these bodies are appointed by President Robert Mugabe, directly and indirectly. Some are public servants vulnerable to all sorts of political pressures. Others are simply ruling party functionaries.
The Delimitation Commission delineates the boundaries of the 120 constituencies. Its members are appointed by Mugabe and report to him. It has often been accused of gerrymandering and is facing this accusation now. This followed its recent reduction, by four, of constituencies in areas controlled by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
It increased them by the same number in regions where the ruling Zanu PF dominates. The ESC “supervises” the registration of voters and conduct of general elections. It “comments” on proposed electoral laws and reports to Mugabe “as it thinks fit”.
It is, in theory, an independent body because, in terms of the constitution, it “shall not, in the exercise of it functions, be subject to the direction or control of any person or authority”.
However, all its members are appointed by Mugabe in consultation with the pro-government Judicial Services Commission and the speaker of parliament, a member of Zanu PF. But the most serious weakness of the body is not its composition, but its lack of executive authority to fulfil its mandate. This is made worse by the fact that it is staffed with pro-Zanu PF people. In reality, the ESC is just a rubber stamp.
The Election Directorate co-ordinates activities of government ministries and departments on the delimiting of constituencies, voter registration and other related matters. Its chairman is appointed by Mugabe “for his ability and experience in administration or his professional qualifications”. The other members include the registrar-general, who is thoroughly discredited and works under the home affairs minister, and between two and 10 members chosen by the justice minister.
This means it is Zanu PF-controlled. The registrar-general’s office, which compiled the current controversial voters’ roll, works under the home affairs ministry and is run by public servants, making it politically exposed.
Mugabe blocked the Southern African Development Community technical team of lawyers from assessing Zimbabwe’s legal and institutional framework because it would have shown the electoral system to be flawed and incapable of supporting free and fair elections. Coupled with well-documented violence and intimidation, Zimbabwe’s weak electoral system makes it impossible to hold genuine elections.
*This article also appeared in BusinessDay.