Zimbabwe is About to Hold its First Elections Since Robert Mugabe’s Ouster. Will it Be Free and Fair?

On 30 May 2018, Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa announced the official date for the 2018 general elections. These elections – to be held on 30 July – are the first since the removal of former president Robert Mugabe from power in November 2017.

The stakes are high. These elections are the first in over 10 years to have new presidential candidates from the country’s two main political parties. Over 100 political parties are contesting in the election, with 23 candidates running for president. More young candidates are stepping up and competing for seats in parliament. State media has even started giving some coverage to opposition parties.

Zimbabwe is entering new territory with these elections, but old concerns still linger, especially in regards to the voters roll and potential rigging.

President Mnangagwa has promised free and fair elections several times. However, it’s a little difficult to take him for his word, given a history of voter intimidation, political violence and poll rigging in the country. Despite this violent history, there are many indications that Zimbabweans will turn up in large numbers to vote on election day. Both first-time and seasoned voters have had to re-register due to the introduction of a biometric voter registration process, which nullified the old voters roll. Described by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) as improving “the quality of the voter register as it accurately captures voters data” and having “great potential to transform the electoral system in Zimbabwe”, voter registration began in September 2017.

While citizens in Zimbabwe lined up to register, there were still questions. First, would people living outside the country (an estimated 5 million Zimbabweans) have the right to vote? There was no official word from government, but there were some indications that at the very least, Zimbabweans living in countries such as South Africa and England could cast their votes (both countries have the highest number of Zimbabwean nationals). Mnangagwa said so himself at the World Economic Forum, where he assured international delegates that Zimbabweans outside the country would not be excluded from the electoral process. However, the final answer only came on 30 May with Mnangagwa’s announcement: No, the diaspora would not be able to vote.

Furthermore, voter registration was to formally close two days after the announcement. The announcement triggered a last-minute flurry of registrations, but angered people living outside the country. They wouldn’t even have enough time to go back and register. They would be completely absent from the elections.

All this has re-ignited fears of election tampering. Tawanda Chimhini, the Director of the Election Resource Centre (ERC), believes that there is real reason to be worried. “We’ve not seen a fundamental shift in what’s happening in Zimbabwe since the 2013 elections. We have seen a consistent attempt in disenfranchising Zimbabweans. This has not changed under the new administration.”

ZANU PF supporters. Credit: Zanu PF website

Still, the broader political narrative around the elections has changed for the better, with the two main parties (MDC and ZANU PF) encouraging a peaceful electoral process. However, this rhetoric of ‘free and fair’ hasn’t translated into action on the ground. The exclusion of diaspora voters and the sudden announcement of the voter registration deadline contradict the message of inclusivity that the ruling party has preached. Furthermore, the government has resisted efforts to amend the Electoral Act, with the then Minister of Justice (Mnangagwa) throwing out the motion in 2014. “In our proposal back then, we had indicated that it was essential that the then administration considers the question of the right to vote, given that the Electoral Act limited the right to vote with respect to the diaspora vote,” says Chimhini. Although Mnangagwa promised in 2014 that the Electoral Act would be amended to make it more in line with the Constitution, no amends were made.

What’s equally concerning is who has access to the voters roll. Inspection of the provisional voters roll began in May, with close to 5 million voters checking whether their details were accurate. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) did tell registered voters not to be alarmed if there were anomalies – after all, the purpose of the inspection was to be able to correct any errors. However, trust in ZEC itself is shaky. A recent survey by Afrobarometer shows that close to half of registered voters indicated that they had little to no faith in ZEC’s neutrality in the electoral process. The commission refused the ERC access to the voters roll for an independent public audit. Thes secrecy around the voters roll is a major issue in creating an environment for credible elections. “You cannot say you want a free and fair election when you don’t respect the independence of the Electoral Commission. These are things that define a free and fair election,” stresses Chimhini. “They (the new dispensation) have focused on a narrative to the outside world that suggests that free and fair elections is what they want to see, but without really enforcing it in terms of their practice.”

With less than two months until the general elections, candidates are now in campaign overdrive. Amidst all the rallies and speeches and posters, the voter and voters rights have taken a backseat to the political spectacle. It’s a situation that Chimhini believes disenfranchises the voter and robs them of their agency. “Our fear is that the voter is still being confined to being a passive participant in the election process. What is crucial is building up confidence in elections as a vehicle for citizen participation.” After years of intimidation and rigging, voters have the opportunity to actively participate in rebuilding Zimbabwe. However, if the lack of transparency continues with the voters roll and in the bodies meant to ensure that these elections are legitimate, then the silencing of voters will continue.