Electoral reform does not start, end with amendments

HARARE - Zimbabwe has embarked on electoral reforms which seek to end the bickering and quarrelling which has dogged previous elections but the public consultations to the Electoral Amendment Bill were marred by chaos and accusations of little consultation. Senior Assistant Editor Guthrie Munyuki speaks to Election Resource Centre (ERC) executive director Tawanda Chimhini and below are the excerpts of the interview.

Q: What is the role of the ERC and how does it influence electoral processes in Zimbabwe?

A: The role of the Election Resource Centre is to constantly research on elections and democratic processes and to support citizen participation in elections and democracy while advocating for electoral reform.

The ERC alone cannot achieve this goal so its influencing of the election process can best be defined as part of the collective effort of other civic society organisations including other important stakeholders such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. 

Q: Why are you opposed to the current electoral reform agenda?

A: The Election Resource Centre is not opposed to the Electoral Amendment Bill. Quite the contrary. Given that we are in the post-election stage of the election cycle, one of the key activities during this stage is electoral reform and while we are happy that there has been an initiative to amend the Electoral Act, we feel the current provisions in the Bill fall far short of the expected reforms that could potentially address electoral challenges faced in the past.

The ERC is opposed to piece meal changes to the Electoral Act that do not address the fundamental inadequacies noted by various election observation missions that were allowed to observe the July 2013 polls including Sadc and we believe that such a process should start with amendments to the Electoral Act but also recognising that electoral reform does not start and end with amendments to the law only. A lot more needs to be done including the actual operationalisation of the Act and the new Constitution.

Q: What should happen before the Electoral Amendment Bill is passed?

A: Before the Electoral Amendment Bill can be passed, we expect Parliament to take seriously all the submissions made by various stakeholders before and during the Public Hearings that were recently concluded.

It is fully appreciated that one political party has a majority in Parliament and that majority can be used to even maintain the Bill in its original form but the encouragement to all parliamentarians is that they should rise above political interests and represent the people of Zimbabwe by ensuring that public views are carried into law.

This will be in full compliance of the spirit and text of Section 141 of the new Constitution which provides for public participation in legislative processes. The ERC feels strongly that such public participation should not be ceremonial in nature but should also translate in public input being considered and included in the formulation of all legislation.

The Electoral Amendment Bill which seeks to change the Electoral Act, is a key piece of legislation whose changing should not be left to politicians alone.

Q: How much time should Parliament give to the public and stakeholders for consultations and gathering of views?

A: The law clearly provides for the amount of time that should be allowed for public and stakeholder consultation before any bill is passed into law.

A worrying trend however, is the tendency at times; by Parliament to fast track Bills through both houses of Parliament through the suspension of Parliamentary Procedures. We have seen this happen in a number of instances, the argument given being that the passing of the Bills would be an urgent matter.

At the end of the day, however, it is not the time that is allocated for stakeholder consultation that is key, it is the will to translate the input of stakeholders and the public into final legislation. That is genuine democracy.

Q: Zec held a consultative conference in a bid to gather views from stakeholders on what should be incorporated into the Electoral Amendment Bill. Are these views part of what was floated to the public and civic groups?

A: The current contents of the Electoral Amendment Bill do not necessarily reflect views shared by various stakeholders during Zec’s Post Election Review Conference.

Interestingly, the Post Election Review was conducted way after the Electoral Amendment Bill had been gazetted and introduced in the House of Assembly. It remains a mystery where the views to inform the contents of the Bill where collected.

This is the very reason why the ERC together with ZimRights and the Women in Politics Support Unit then petitioned Parliament calling for the holding of Public Hearings on the Bill.

There was a real danger that a Bill crafted with limited consultation could easily pass into law, given the speed with which it had sailed through the Senate.

Q: What is the civic society position on this and how can you influence positive contribution to these Electoral reforms?

A: Civic Society’s position on the Bill has been well put out given the statements and position papers issued by the Election Resource Centre, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

I cannot speak on behalf of these organisations but the ERC maintains that any changes to laws particularly those that have a bearing on elections should contribute to broad electoral reforms that address previous challenges noted by domestic, regional and continental bodies that were accredited to observe the July 2013 polls, reforms that also abide by international standards of holding elections.

Q: For the benefit of the public, what are the key amendments that Parliament is pushing in this Electoral Amendment Bill?

A:  Key amendments contained in the Electoral Amendment Bill include provisions for the indirect party list election of 60 Senators, 60 women Members of the National Assembly and 80 members of the Provincial Councils, clarification on the transmission of results from the polling station upwards, advance submission of political party lists before nomination dates for scrutiny by Zec, the designation of political party representatives to certify nomination papers at the national and provincial levels, reducing the number of nominators from 10 to 5 for candidates at the National Assembly level, providing for the election of two Senators to represent persons with disability and the removal of Special Voting among other things.

Q: What are contentious provisions in the current Electoral Act?

A: The current Electoral Act contains a number of provisions that continue to contribute to the disputed nature of our elections, provisions around the independence of the election commission, registration of voters and the voters’ roll, the right to vote, complaint mechanisms when disputes arise and the manner in which changes to the Electoral Act are done.

Q: If government and indeed Parliament consider all views before amending the Electoral Act, do you think it will measure up to Sadc Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections?

A: We are oblivious to the fact that good laws alone do not make our elections any more credible than they already are so it would be naive to think that consideration and in fact inclusion of all views before the passing of the Electoral Amendment Bill will make Zimbabwe measure up to Sadc Principles and Guideline Governing Democratic Elections.

The Electoral Act would, thereafter, need to be operationalised to the extent that will ensure credibility and transparency in the manner our elections are to be held.

Such operationalisation comes through the functions of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

Zec will need to be strengthened so that it effectively discharges its mandate with limited executive interference and adequate support from all election stakeholders.

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ORIGINAL - 19 May 2014

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