HARARE – Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) officials went on the defensive at a media workshop in Kadoma last week to make vague and terse assertions that the body is ready to oversee free and fair elections next year .
Normally, statements to the effect that all will be well when the country next year goes to the polls should elicit a collective sigh of relief from Zimbabweans.
However, considering that the last plebiscite Zec presided over, the 2008 harmonised elections and subsequent presidential run-off, were an unmitigated disaster, the officials need to be more forthcoming on what they have done and will do to avoid the pitfalls of four years ago.
These elections were riddled with so many serious irregularities and atrocities as to cause the African Union and other continental and regional bodies to declare them not to have been free and fair and therefore not reflecting the will of the people of Zimbabwe.
After these violent and bloody polls in which hundreds of innocent Zimbabweans died, it is deplorable for Zec officials to act as though it is business as usual.
They should have learnt some lessons from which they should have come up with new approaches.
There is a vast difference between overseeing genuinely free and fair elections and pretending that polls characterised by the use of coercive force, intimidation, violence and procedural breaches designed to tilt the outcome in favour of a particular party or candidate, went without a hitch.
Zec does not operate in a vacuum that makes it possible for the electoral body to insist it can deliver on its mandate when realities on the ground mean it is dealing with a terrorised and shackled electorate.
The very least the electoral body can do would be to be transparent enough to acknowledge its limitations and to inform the electorate how it proposes to avoid the pitfalls that have marred past elections.
The officials’ determination to gloss over everything and paint a picture that is too good to be true is no comfort to an apprehensive populace.
According to press reports, acting Zec chairperson, Joyce Kazembe told journalists at a media workshop in Kadoma a week ago: “Our mission is to have free, fair and democratic elections and that is what we are doing.
“We are likely to conduct a referendum and elections in the near future. We don’t give you a date, that’s not our role. The date comes from somewhere else.”
This reciting of these institutional platitudes and passing of the buck does not serve any purpose and highlights one of Zec’s main weaknesses: its failure to disseminate relevant information in a timely, non-selective manner and inability to explain procedures and developments at every stage of the electoral process to all section of the media.
Zec’s failure to be transparent fuels suspicions that it is biased and covers up anomalies that may work to the advantage of some political parties.
In the absence of a free flow of accurate information, journalists should not be blamed for surmising that there is a fire when they see unexplained smoke.
If Zec is indeed an autonomous body as it should be, it is mandated to announce dates on which an election or a referendum is to be held.
Kazembe should have explained to journalists attending the Kadoma workshop why is it unable to do so.
Last time around, Zec was heavily criticised for withholding the announcement of the date on which the June 2008 presidential run-off by two weeks.
Before that there had been the mysterious and unprecedented delay in announcing the results of the first round of the presidential poll.
For almost six weeks Zec kept the nation and indeed the world in the dark about what it was doing.
When it eventually emerged that it had been conducting a recount in 23 constituencies, Zec could not explain why the recount was ordered before the results had been announced.
Four years later, the Commission is still struggling to come up with a plausible explanation for the irregularity, if the utterances of Zec deputy chief election officer Utoile Silaigwana are anything to go by.
This is not a good omen for the forthcoming polls.
While responding to questions from journalists, Silaigwana was quoted in the press last Thursday as apportioning blame for the anomaly to politicians.
“The 2008 delay in announcing the presidential (election) results was not our fault.
“There was interference from political players who started announcing unofficial results putting the whole system into disrepute”, he said.
This is a poor attempt to pass the buck at this late juncture when his claims can no longer be verified.
Silaigwana’s statement still skirts around the issue and does not shed any light on why Zec did not make timely public disclosures of the incidents that necessitated the recount leading to the suspicious delay in announcing the outcome.
Rather than exonerate the electoral body, these lame excuses paint Zec as a spineless and biased organisation that is at the mercy and beck and call of politicians. Voters deserve better than this.
Zec should emulate election management bodies such as South Africa’s electoral body and some in West Africa which rather than acting as rubber stamps for the whims of politicians, assert their independence and serve their electorate.
Kazembe told journalists at the Kadoma media workshop that they were the eyes and ears of society. “We expect you to play a leading role in informing the public and we expect from you responsible reporting, ” the press quoted her as saying.
Indeed, journalists are watchdogs for the public interest and should be free to tell it like it is.
Responsible reporting should not entail fear-induced self-censorship resulting in turning a blind eye on incidents whose exposure the powers-that-be may find unpalatable.
The media should not be made a scapegoat for Zec’s shortcomings. The media should tell it as it is and so should Zec.
Speaking at the same workshop, a commissioner, Petty Makoni was quoted in the press as impressing upon the media practitioners that Zec did not consist of political appointees but professionals who would perform their duties in an objective manner.
This sounds too much like a case of a guilty conscience needing no accuser.
March next year is not very far off and if indeed elections are to be held then Zec should be disseminating information on voter education, voter registration, inspection of the voters’ roll and other details relevant to its operations and interaction with the media and the electorate. – Mary Revesai