Zim inching towards disputed polls

HARARE - Zimbabwe's 2018 harmonised elections are likely to be disputed if no effort is made to strengthen democratic institutions and laws that govern elections.

Already there are special voting blocs that are raising the red flag, among them those living in the Diaspora, prisoners, the physically-challenged who feel government and, in particular the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), is marginalising them.

Zimbabweans adopted a new Constitution in 2013 which if aligned to the law would facilitate easy access to voting by these marginalised groups but four years down the line, government has refused to align the Electoral Act with the supreme law.

An estimated three million Zimbabweans who live in the Diaspora, having run away from the failing economy in the past decade will not be able to vote in 2018 as government insists they have to come back to Zimbabwe to vote.

While the country has provisions for a postal ballot or out-of-country voting, this is not meant for all people living outside Zimbabwe but only for those out of the country on national duty.

Although the Constitution grants political rights to prisoners, the country’s inmates will not be allowed to vote in this year’s elections.

Last year, President Emmerson Mnangagwa who was then Justice minister, while responding to a question during Parliament’s question and answer session said convicted people who are behind bars are not eligible to vote as they have forfeited their fundamental rights.

He added that the concept of prison is that once you have committed a crime you forfeit the rights of a free person.

During the 2013 elections an estimated 17 000 inmates where denied the right to vote with Zec arguing there wasn’t adequate time to put in place logistics required for them to cast their ballot. An equal number may not be able to vote again this year.

Zec, while acknowledging that Chapter 4, Section 4.18 of the new charter states that every Zimbabwean has the right to vote, said they did not have mechanisms for prisoners to vote in this year’s elections.

On the other hand, thousands of blind Zimbabweans will have to be assisted to vote because Zimbabwe’s voting system does not provide for Braille ballot papers.

The Council for the Blind Zimbabwe says an estimated 125 000 people in Zimbabwe are blind and twice that number are visually impaired.

Because of the absence of Braille ballot papers, the electoral law says blind voters are assisted to vote by officers presiding over polling stations, in the presence of a police officer and agents of contesting political parties.

But opposition parties have in the past accused the ruling Zanu PF of using assisted voters to steal votes. This comes as the number of assisted voters in the country’s previous elections has been contentious, due to vote-rigging fears.

In fact, right from political campaigns to the day of voting, there is absolutely no literature in Braille.

While according to the UN, Zimbabwe is the most literate country in Africa with a literacy rate of more than 90 percent, in 2013 elections AU observers noted a worryingly “high number of assisted voters in many polling stations nationwide”.

Assisted voting is intended to help the illiterate or the infirm cast their ballots. Suspiciously, at least 200 000 — most of them claiming to be illiterate — were assisted to vote in the 2013 poll.

The electoral system in the country is hostile to people living with disabilities both as candidates and voters.

Apart from the blind, there are other disabled groups who have also complained about the size of the voting booth which they cannot access easily.

There are also the deaf and dumb who need direction on voting day, hence the need to engage sign language experts at polling stations, something which has to be addressed.

The 2018 election also comes in the wake of outstanding irregularities as raised by regional and local observers such as the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), the African Union, and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), based on observations from the 2013 elections.

In that light, election stakeholders, particularly civil society organisations and political parties have continuously called for comprehensive reforms towards peaceful, free, fair and credible electoral processes with the emphasis on legislative, environmental and administrative frameworks that will guide the polls.