HARARE – Padded out with babies, dead people and phantom voters, Zimbabwe’s electoral roll has long been a contentious feature of its elections and is accused of being the rotten core of vote-rigging.
The list of voters eligible to cast ballots in elections due on July 30 will be a major focus for foreign observers deployed to the country in an effort to ensure the vote’s credibility.
In previous ballots, manipulating the voters roll has been one of the strategies used to fix results.
In 2013, observer group Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network described the voters’ roll that was the basis of former president Robert Mugabe’s final election victory — a 61% landslide — as “a systematic effort to disenfranchise” voters.
They estimated that around one million electors had been robbed of their political voice.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who took over from Mugabe with support from the military last November, has vowed a break with the past — promising an election free of violence, intimidation and fraud.
To allay fears of phantom voters, Zimbabwe has produced a new register featuring biometric voter data for the first time.
In recent weeks, voters have even been able to inspect and verify their details to avoid problems on polling day.
“The biometric voter registration process captures one’s biometric details, hence it is envisaged that it will get rid of multiple registrations and dead people on the voters roll,” said Tawanda Chimhini, director of the Election Resource Centre, a non-profit poll monitor.
A Zimbabwe Electoral Commissioon (ZEC) official checks names in the voters roll register which critics say has been padded out with babies, the dead and bogus names in the past to help rig elections
But poll watchers and opposition parties warn that will not be enough to ensure the election’s credibility.
Demand for an independent audit of the register has intensified in recent weeks after voter registration closed on Friday.
“There must be an external audit of the voters roll,” said Douglas Mwonzora, secretary-general of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party.
ZEC, which organises elections, has so far refused to open the roll to public scrutiny, arguing that to do so would create confusion.
“It’s rather sad that [ZEC] have chosen not to do this because unfortunately it feeds the perception that they have something to hide,” said Piers Pigou, the International Crisis Group’s Zimbabwe researcher.
An independent audit of the voter register at various stages of its compilation is “the critical missing factor” in the much-anticipated and closely watched election, Pigou said.
“There is one fundamental problem that we are seeing here… and that is its failure to really invest and build credibility and confidence in this roll.”
Sara Rich Dorman, a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh and author of the book Understanding Zimbabwe, warned that Zimbabweans were hungry for transparency.
“We know that every voters roll since independence has been deeply flawed,” she said.
“The verification process this time seems substantially improved, but if the list is still based on old, problematic voters rolls, then we cannot be 100% confident.”
Activists also say key constitutional changes adopted in 2013 have not yet been made law, which could threaten the constitutionality of the polls.
“A number of laws remain unaligned to the constitution of Zimbabwe, potentially threatening the constitutionality of our election, including the independence of the ZEC… [and] the right to vote for the diaspora and prisoners,” said Chimhini.
“ZEC must be able to operate independently without the interference of the executive.”
The opposition has complained that ZEC is heavily-stacked with former military personnel who could lean towards the ruling Zanu PF power structure and have called for it to be “demilitarised”.
But for ordinary voters, the biggest concern will be that the elections are peaceful.
“People have to be very mature, no violence — just cast your vote to build our nation in peace,” said Victor Murembeni (38), who registered to vote at the last minute.
Mnangagwa (75) of the ruling Zanu PF party will square-off against the MDC’s 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa in the presidential race.
Chamisa replaced founding party leader Morgan Tsvangirai after the former trade union stalwart, who served as prime minister in a power-sharing government with Mugabe, died of cancer in February.
Former president Mugabe (94) has not been seen in public in recent months, although he has been linked to a new political party made up of disgruntled former Zanu PF members.
So there may yet be surprises to come in Zimbabwe’s election other than the electoral roll.