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The role of state institutions in electoral corruption

Zimbabwe is expected to hold general elections — simultaneous council, parliamentary and presidential polls — sometime in the second half of 2018.

corruptionwatch WITH TAWANDA MAJONI

zec

That makes 2017 a particularly significant year as it is the eve of the elections. A lot is expected to happen this year, but mostly the implementation of key electoral reforms to ensure free, fair and credible polls.

A coalition of opposition political parties set up the National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera) in 2016 to lobby for reforms. But the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), the head player in this process, is not moving fast enough. A big worry, therefore, persists that the sitting Zanu PF establishment might manipulate the next polls.

In other words, it is feared that Zanu PF will rig the elections. That is called electoral fraud, probably the worst form of corruption that any country can suffer as it has far-reaching and negative effects on democracy and governance. The fear has a historical context. For more than a decade, the Zanu PF government has been accused of capitalising on its incumbency to manipulate electoral processes and systems ahead of and during general polls and by-elections in its own favour.

The last elections in 2013 provide a dramatic anecdote. President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF left the world, including those in the ruling party, in awe, romping home with unlikely landslides. The party was critically divided, started its campaign only two weeks before the elections and provided no hope that it would fix a troubled economy on its own.

Losing parties, western embassies and civil society cried foul. They accused Zanu PF of working with Nikuv International Projects, an Israeli security company that was helping the registrar-general’s (RG) office process the voters’ roll, to throw the elections. Seemingly solid evidence was there. The RG had paid Nikuv more than $10 million through a local bank. Nikuv, the bank and the RG wouldn’t explain the transactions which they said were highly confidential.

Reports also claimed that Zanu PF had enlisted the help of an elite military mission from China to help manipulate the polls, while others accused local and international businesspersons as well as some African statesmen of helping the party bribe voters by giving it millions of dollars.

Morgan Tsvangirai, the losing MDC-T presidential candidate, took the matter to the Constitutional Court. That attempt came to nought, of course. Just like other forms of corruption, electoral fraud is difficult to prove but where it can be proved, there will always be hurdles.

The Collins dictionary defines election rigging as the act of dishonestly organising a poll to get a particular desired result through fraud and interference with the election process. It entails the abuse of office by individuals and institutions for unfair and/or illegal gain, which translates to the retention or acquisition of political power. It is largely subtle, thus difficult to prove, even though, as will be seen here, some of it is brazenly direct, and most of it occurs well ahead of elections.

One common type of electoral fraud manifests through the abuse and manipulation of state institutions by a sitting government. These institutions include electoral commissions, the judiciary, security departments, the registrar’s office and ministries. Because the government is in control of them, it can force them to do certain things that would enable rigging, or just manipulate them to ensure that they don’t do what they are supposed to do.

In Zimbabwe, Zec has for a long time been accused of bias in favour of Zanu PF. There is evidence to support this. Rita Makarau, the Zec chairperson, a judge and secretary of the Judicial Services Commission, who also wants to be the next chief justice, last year admitted that the commission secretariat was stuffed with intelligence operatives. Obviously, the spooks were deployed there to gather intelligence and help formulate strategies on how best to aid the ruling party win elections. It would be folly to hope that those strategies would be fair and legal, considering that the secret service is, essentially, a proxy of the ruling party and the president.

Given also that the intelligence agency is much feared, the commissioners are reduced to sitting and quaking ducks. It is highly improbable that Makarau and her team of commissioners would afford the luxury of contradicting the directives and “advice” of the spooks who, in practice, are the eyes and ears of the president. After all, the Makaraus of this world hold high office on the whim of the president as the appointing authority.

ZEC is charged with leading electoral reforms that generally involve ensuring transparency and accountability in the polling process. It has already indicated that it will deliver a new and clean voters’ roll and ensure biometric voting as well as efficient voting and ballot counting, as provided by the constitution. This is what Nera, the majority of citizens and electoral watchdogs want too.

The problem, however, is that Zanu PF is opposed to significant electoral reforms. Saviour Kasukuwere, a cabinet minister, politburo member and Zanu PF national commissar, in 2016 betrayed the ruling party’s contempt for electoral reform when he said his government was satisfied with the status quo. There is a big chance that free, fair and credible elections would play against the ruling party.

This implies that Zec might not be able to deliver on its mandate as the government that controls it does not want reforms. Remember, the commission mostly gets its money from the central revenue fund. Government can easily use the finance ministry to ensure that Zec is incapacitated to lead electoral reform by starving it of funds to implement its programmes. This looks highly likely because, again on its admission, the commission is yet to receive significant financial allocations from the government. This is a familiar narrative, as the same happened ahead of the 2013 elections after the adoption of the new constitution.

In cases where external funding is being received through institutions like the United Nations Development Programme, the government still has the leisure of plugging that pipe and disabling Zec. All it needs to do is to produce good propaganda accusing external funding agencies of seeking to institute regime change. As an already captured institution, Zec would easily and collusively shrug off the accusation of not doing enough to reform electoral systems by citing poor funding. It has been doing that, after all.

The security sector is also commonly used to rig polls. In any case, it has never hidden its location in terms of who it supports politically. Just before the 2002 presidential election, the generals led by the late former defence forces commander, Vitalis Zvinavashe, offered an austere press conference where they ominously declared that the presidency was a straight jacket which wouldn’t be worn by a person without liberation credentials.

That had the residual effect of ruling out Morgan Tsvangirai from the race because he allegedly fled from the war front and became a tea boy for white people. It was subtle intimidation aimed at the opposition and the electorate. Intimidation, of course, works well to rig polls. Prior to that, in the run-up to and during the 2000 parliamentary elections, reports indicated that soldiers were deployed to urban residential areas where they indiscriminately beat up people. The people’s sin as reported was that they supported the opposition MDC party.

Security agents were again on the prowl ahead of the June 27 2008 presidential run-off. Working in collaboration with war veterans and Zanu PF militia, they are reported to have set up torture camps across the country where suspected opposition supporters were maimed and even killed.

Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off, citing widespread violence. That handed Mugabe the victory, after losing in the first round in March of the same year. It is clear here that violence helped determine the outcome of the poll. That is rigging, and rigging is corruption.

Yet to be proved claims also indicated that the security sector colluded with the RG’s office and Nikuv to manipulate the voters’ roll at KGVI. That reportedly involved strategically stuffing the roll with voters, both actual and ghost, who would at poll time “vote” Zanu PF, the deletion of suspected opposition supporters and the deliberate “chessing” of voters in constituencies to ensure that the opposition was neutralised and polling areas clogged with ruling party supporters.

Another state institution that becomes easily handy for rigging is the judiciary. In this case, court systems are made to collude with the police, the prosecuting authority and other security agencies to simulate prosecution of high profile opposition leaders on false charges ahead of elections. This distracts the victims and undermines their campaigns while instilling fear in them and the electorate. Again, the judiciary is abused to ensure that court challenges pertaining to poll results and polling conduct are frustrated. In most cases, judges just reserve judgements or reasons for rulings indefinitely, as what has happened in Zimbabwe since 2000.

Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust (IDT), a non-profit organisation promoting access to information on public and private sector transparency and accountability and can be contacted on majonitt@gmail.com

One Response to The role of state institutions in electoral corruption

  1. Ivan Gova January 8, 2017 at 8:29 am #

    That is a fluent read. We must set out working.

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