The contest during elections is no longer just about votes but also about what happens before and after the polls. In most cases this contestation has spilled into the courts which unfortunately have failed dismally to handle the cases.
Opposition political parties, especially since 2000, have sought recourse from the courts for what they call the “subversion of the electoral process by the regime (Zanu PF) in a bid to frustrate the will of the people”.
The MDC, which has mounted a serious challenge to Zanu PF since the turn of the century, has frequented the courts more than any other political party as it felt hard done by, especially after the June 2000 parliamentary elections where the party brought 39 electoral challenges, most of them unresolved by the time of the next election in 2005.
Another electoral challenge was brought challenging President Robert Mugabe in 2002 after the presidential election that year.
The MDC brought a further 15 electoral challenges in 2005. Some of these are still to be dealt with.
These statistics are clearly informative on the ineffectiveness of the court processes in dealing with electoral issues.
What the politicians who have challenged any electoral result have learnt is that the court processes prior to the institution of the Electoral Court have been long and wearisome with no useful outcome so far.
In some cases five years would elapse before a case was concluded, which would render the ruling academic.
It is against such a problematic history that one has to look at the proposed role of the Electoral Courts under the proposed reforms.
We should take a look at how Brazil has decentralised the issue to have regional electoral courts responsible for the control and inspection of the whole electoral process in their jurisdiction. These courts are empowered to register each regional branch of the political parties and the production of reports.
These regional courts are responsible for the registration of voters, for the constitution of electoral districts and for reporting the results. They are also supposed to settle disputes regarding the elections and judge appeals regarding decisions of the electoral judges.
In Zimbabwe it has to be acknowledged that the institution of the Electoral Court was largely a response to the surge in the number of challenges which could not be included under the normal legal process. It thus would be an injustice if the courts with a particular interest in elections do not pay special attention to the time-sensitive nature of the cases they would deal with.
As such, the operations of the electoral courts should be time-bound so that whoever challenges a result gets recourse to the shortest possible time. This should apply to cases brought prior to voting and after.
Any challenger should make the case known within the shortest period with the court sitting and giving a verdict in say less than three months.
This should give room for appeals, which should also be heard in less than three months thus giving a maximum of six months for the hearing of any electoral challenges.
These time frames are important if we, as a country, are serious about elections. What sense would it make to have a disputed outcome settled after more than five years?
A delay in settling a dispute not only robs the electorate of their rightful representative but it also gives an incentive for further electoral fraud and corruption which has come to punctuate the local politics of late.
We have learnt the hard way and the proposals would be very refreshing if they pay attention to the basics, especially the time frames.
If properly implemented, these changes would be a step in reforming our electoral process.