BVR not the panacea to Zim's electoral challenges

HARARE - With the 2018 elections fast approaching, this week the Daily News speaks to Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, the Director of Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) on a number of issues around this crucial vote, its preparation and short comings thus far.

Zesn was formed in 2000 and it is a coalition of 31 non-governmental organisations formed to co-ordinate activities pertaining to elections. The major focus of the Network is to promote democratic processes in general and free and fair elections in particular.

It was also established to standardise the Non-Governmental Organisations’ election related activities and methodology as well as to ensure wider geographical coverage and co-ordination of activities.

The broad aim of the Network is to enhance the election process in Zimbabwe in order to promote democracy and good governance in general as well as free and fair elections in particular whilst adhering to internationally acceptable standards.

Q: Your organisation has monitored electoral processes in Zimbabwe for quite some time now. Do you think that there have been any improvements on the electoral field?

A: Yes, Zesn has been observing elections since 2000 and we have noted a number of significant reforms aimed at improving electoral processes.

For example, if you remember elections in the past were not held in a day and the ballot boxes were wooden; results were not posted outside the polling stations amongst other administrative improvements.

This was as a result of sustained advocacy for electoral reform as well as changes in the legislative framework governing elections in Zimbabwe.

So yes, there have been some major changes but what we have noted is that the reforms are incremental and piecemeal, therefore it will take considerable time to adequately match international standards and best practices that is why we continuously call for the improvement of Zimbabwe’s electoral processes to fully conform to regional and internationally accepted standards for the credible, free and fair elections.

So yes, we have done a lot of work and will not tire to call for electoral reforms, we hope one day our pleas will be considered.

Q: A lot of election-related political party activities seem to be going on. It appears parties are already in an election mode. When are the 2018 elections expected to be held?

A: Yes, the country is already in election-mode like you said some parties are already indicating their interests to contests and some are already organising their structures in preparation for the election.

According to the legal framework and information that has been released by the Commission in response to a similar question, elections are anticipated to be held no later than September 2018.

However, the elections might be held earlier should there be dissolution of the current Parliament of Zimbabwe. In that case the Constitutional provisions will be used.

Q: Zesn and other Civic Society Organisations (CSOs) have been calling for electoral reforms - what key issues are still outstanding?

A: To begin with, we note that, on the positive side, the biometric voter registration (BVR) has been adopted as a way of addressing some of the challenges that were noted in previous voters’ rolls.

Given that one of the key benefits of the BVR system is its ability to deal with duplicate entries, we therefore expect to have a new, clean, and accurate voters’ roll for the 2018 elections if done in accordance with international principles which include inclusivity, comprehensiveness, accessibility, transparency amongst others.

However, a number of other sticking key issues still remain including the outstanding alignment of laws, particularly the Electoral Act with the 2013 Constitution.

The resourcing of Zimbabwe Election Commission (Zec) is also a major concern, because without adequate financial resources, the Commission cannot fully carry out its mandate.

In addition, the full independence of Zec is crucial hence our repeated calls that it should report to Parliament directly.

Other issues include comprehensive, inclusive and extensive voter education, enforceable code of conduct for political parties and candidates, creation of enforceable and punitive measures against electoral violations such as violence and intimidation.

Q. So will this BVR solve problems that organisations like Zesn have noted in the previous elections?

I would reiterate what we have been saying as Zesn that BVR is not the panacea to all of Zimbabwe's electoral challenges but however it has great potential to transform the electoral system in Zimbabwe given that it offers significant protection against double registrations and inaccuracies.

So like I indicated earlier, the system must also be accompanied by other appropriate legislative, administrative and political reforms that electoral stakeholders have been calling for. I think you also appreciated the need for an inclusive and comprehensive voter education exercise to demystify some of the myths and misconceptions around the introduction of the new technology.

Q: On the issue of diaspora vote, CSOs have been calling for people in the diaspora to vote as one of the electoral reforms demands. What would be your comment on this issue?

A: Section 67(3) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe states that every Zimbabwean has a right to vote and our interpretation of that provision is that it is inclusive of people in the diaspora. Zesn has previously indicated that regionally other countries such as Mozambique and Kenya have availed facilities for their citizens in the diaspora to register to vote.

Thus, in line with the ‘Right to Vote’ as guaranteed in the Constitution, it is imperative that the Commission makes efforts to enfranchise eligible citizens in the diaspora to exercise their right to vote.

However, adequate mechanisms have to be put in place to ensure that there is transparency and accountability and that the credibility of the election is not compromised through this facility.

Also related to your question about the diaspora vote and the call for the enjoyment of the right to vote by all eligible voters, we have called upon the government to consider reinstating the special vote in order to cater for uniformed forces and election officials who will be on duty and away from their polling area on polling day.

Q: In light of the time left for the holding of the 2018 harmonised elections, do you think meaningful and effective electoral reforms can still be instituted?

A: Going by what we have seen in other jurisdictions regarding the implementation of electoral reforms, one could say we have run out of time. Eleventh hour reforms will not be effective.

We therefore think that the electoral reforms issue needs to be attended to with some sense of urgency. To this end, we would expect that by the end of September or thereabouts, the outstanding electoral reforms would have been attended to.

But for reforms to happen we need a conducive environment where fundamental freedoms are being enjoyed by all Zimbabweans.

Q: In the event that there are no electoral reforms what should be done to ensure credible elections?

A: It is hard to fathom an election being held in the absence of requisite reforms that for example guarantee that stringent measures are put in place to deter and deal with perpetrators of violence, that set up robust mechanisms to deal with electoral related disputes, ensure equitable media coverage of all political contestants among other key issues.

So the long and short of it is that for the next elections to be considered credible they must be held after the aforementioned legislative, administrative and political environment reforms.

Q: There seems to be mixed views regarding the issue of the requirement for proof of registration at registration. What is Zen’s position on that?

A: While we acknowledge that there is need for one to prove that he or she is resident in the area of registration, the proof of registration requirement in the form of utility bills may disenfranchise a significant number of voters since not all voters are property owners or receive utility bills in their names.

Zesn has engaged Zec on the matter and they have assured us that the Commission will accept alternative proof such as hospital bills or cards with an address, affirmations in the form of letters from landlords or relatives, any other document which can be used as proof which is not necessarily an affidavit.

The Commission gave its assurance that they will make this process as flexible as possible. However, the feasibility of this can only be tested once voter registration begins; we are however still engaging the Commission on this matter.

Q: When is the BVR process starting?

A: In the absence of an official election calendar or road map by the Commission it is difficult to state when the BVR process of actual registration will begin.

However from the engagement we have had with Zec, we gathered that other key processes have taken place for example the down payment to the supplier of the BVR kits.

So we are still waiting for a detailed plan of action with clear timelines from the Commission. This will also inform our plans as stakeholders.

Q: You engaged with Zec as CSOs. Are you satisfied with the ongoing BVR processes?

A: Zec held a CSO engagement meeting on 11 July which was important in that it sought to provide feedback on the implementation of the BVR system. Overall, the process has taken longer than anticipated to get started, however feedback from the Commission indicates that should everything be done according to the plan they revealed to the CSOs, then by January 2018 the process should be completed.

We are pleased that the Commission is targeting about seven million eligible voters during the BVR process, a figure that resonates with projections done by Zesn two months ago on the number of eligible voters for the 2018 elections.

One of the key areas we feel the Commission can improve on is the timeous provision of crucial information to stakeholders regarding the BVR processes.

Q: What are ZESN’s programming plans for the BVR process?

A: In line with our core business of monitoring electoral processes, Zesn intends to observe the nationwide biometric voter registration process by deploying observers to all the provinces of Zimbabwe to cover the entire process. Prior to that, the Network will conduct comprehensive voter education once accredited by Zec.

Q: There have been concerns over the number of registration centres especially in urban areas. What is Zesn’s comment on the centres released by Zec?

A: Ideally, the distribution of registration centres should be proportionate to the expected number of potential voters who will register in those respective areas. Even though Zec has said they have used scientific methods to determine the number of voter registration centres in each province in accordance with the population of the areas, it is recommended that Zec also takes cognisance of the issues raised by observers in previous elections.

In the past, there were challenges where a good number of people in urban areas could not register on account of a limited number of registration centres, slow processing of registrants that caused very long queues. What it means is that they were disenfranchised as voters and denied their constitutional right to vote. So it is really an issue.

Zec has however informed us that a person can register at any registration centre even though it is not their voting centres and that there will be continuous voter registration at the Zec Headquarters, Provincial Centres, and District Centres.

Q: In conclusion, you have pointed out a number of challenges that continue to mar our electoral process, so will the 2018 elections be free and fair?

A: You will agree with me that making such a prediction at this moment is not plausible. Clearly, the answer to that question should not be based on mere conjecture, it is perhaps easier for those who prophecy.

But all we can say is that the answer to that question really depends on the successful administration of the elections as well as the environment in which they will take place.

You have to take note of the fact that the freeness and fairness of elections is assessed at several levels: before, during, and after polling.

We call for the implementation of reforms and the need for the electorate to be accorded their right to vote for the candidates of their choice, free from intimidation and threat of violence. In addition, public confidence in each step of an election process is critical to the integrity of the election.

The adoption of the open data policy will entail that critical information such as procurement processes is made public to avoid suspicions of electoral manipulation. In addition, Zec must show commitment to best practice and internationally accepted principles in all processes.

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