Editor’s Memo

Setting the tone

Iden Wetherell

THE Zengeza poll outcome will hopefully stimulate a debate about whether to contest elections that are anything but free and fair. Last week I referred to the

suffocating media environment that prevented voters from making an informed choice at the polls. We should as civil society be discussing now how to respond to the vote-buying and intimidation we have witnessed in the latest poll.

The MDC is allowing its members to have their say while it prepares for a number of eventualities. In due course the party will make a formal decision on whether to participate or not in the March 2005 poll.

But this should not be a debate confined to the MDC. It concerns the people of Zimbabwe as a whole. Do they want the current crisis to continue with an attendant decline in living standards or do they want something better? Are they prepared to see the Electoral Act become an instrument of the ruling party or will they insist on their right to a free and fair poll?

There are several major elections taking place in the region this year and next: in Botswana, South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi, and Namibia. All will be guided by the Sadc parliamentary forum’s electoral standards. Zimbabwe has chosen to be an exception.

Section 158 of the Electoral Act is a 1990 instrument providing the president with sweeping powers to make regulations governing polls. Mugabe used this to make far-reaching changes to the electoral process on the eve of the March 2002 presidential poll.

By allowing Mugabe the power to make electoral laws unilaterally, the MDC’s lawyers argue in the party’s court petition contesting the 2002 poll outcome, the public and parliament were deprived of the opportunity to debate the changes. Mugabe used Section 158 to introduce a number of regulations, the party’s legal team notes, which fundamentally affected the way the presidential election was run.

They point out for example that he used Section 158 to pass regulations that had the effect of disenfranchising large numbers of Zimbabwean citizens who were declared to be “foreign” citizens; disenfranchising some categories of postal voters; limiting the number of polling stations set up in urban areas; repeatedly and secretly extending the cut-off date for voter registration thus allowing late registration of voters in areas sympathetic to the president; and overturning court rulings that had declared invalid some of the regulations passed earlier by Mugabe under Section 158.

To prevent this happening again the MDC has made 15 demands that it regards as essential preconditions to a free and fair poll.

They are:

* The establishment of a genuinely independent electoral commission that will be responsible for running elections and the entire electoral process.

* The exclusion of officials seen as partisan such as the present Registrar-General and members of the military from being involved in the running of the elections.

* A completely fresh voter regi-stration exercise done by the Inde-pendent Electoral Commission with the assistance of the United Nations.

* The supply of an electronic (computer data base) copy of the voters’ roll to all political parties and interested persons.

* The repeal of those aspects of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act that curtail media freedoms.

* The repeal of those aspects of the Public Order and Security Act that curtail the freedom of political parties to campaign.

* The amendment of the Electoral Act to bring it into conformity with the Sadc Parliamentary Forum’s Electoral Standards and Norms.

* The reversal of administrative decisions that have resulted in the closure of the Daily News and the removal of all obstacles preventing the Daily News and other newspapers from operating freely.

* The liberalisation of the broadcasting media and the opening up of state media to carry equal amounts of coverage of all parties’ electoral messages pro rata to the percentage of votes they secured in the last general parliamentary election.

* The complete disbanding of the youth militia.

* The use of translucent plastic ballot boxes of secure, single-piece construction.

* All voting should be done and completed in one day. To ensure this, sufficient numbers of polling stations should be established.

* Unhindered access to the entire electoral process by international, regional and domestic election observer missions.

* All counting of ballots to take place at polling stations in the mandatory presence of polling agents and observers.

* The use of visible indelible ink to identify those who have voted.

These criteria are considered routine best practice in most democracies and nearly all can be found in the Sadc parliamentary forum’s protocol on electoral standards and norms signed up to by Zimbabwe in 2001. They should not be seen as exclusively MDC conditions. Civil society should be making its voice heard in demanding free and fair elections based on similar terms.

Elections can change people’s lives. Conducted properly they can replace poorly-performing governments with those prepared to work with the international community in turning a country around so it grows and prospers. Zimbabweans are being denied that opportunity. And if they don’t raise their voices in insisting on their democratic right to a free and fair poll they will end up condemned to years of poverty and repression.

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