Assessing the independence of the ‘electoral commission’
The electoral management body of a country is regarded as one of the most important essentials to a credible and acceptable election.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is perpetually under spotlight as electoral contestants continue to be blighted by disputes emanating from real and perceived questions over the degree of independence of its electoral administration body.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) explored the mechanisms for strengthening independence of ZEC, unrestricted by government oversight in the administration of electoral administration body.
“Election management in Zimbabwe evolved from a governmental model during the period of 1980 to 2004 shifting to a mixed model between 2005 and 2013.
“Following the adoption of a new Constitution on May 22, 2013, Zimbabwe transitioned to an exclusively independent model of electoral administration which witnessed ZEC retaining sole mandate to manage all electoral processes,” the ZESN policy brief read.
The evolution of election management in Zimbabwe encountered several election-related disputes which were mainly linked to stakeholder confidence in the electoral commission.
“Accordingly, the transition to a truly independent model of election administration was inspired by evident gaps within the restructured ZEC.
“While demonstrable efforts to reform were witnessed since 2005, questions over the independence of ZEC remain in place.
“In the advent of a new constitution in 2013, wherein ZEC was obligated with the sole mandate of administering elections, evidence of gaps in structural, regulatory and financial independence of the electoral commission remain glaring and its attributed to incipient conflicts that often follow electoral events in Zimbabwe,” the ZESN policy brief read further.
A comparative scope by ZESN on the independence of ZEC shows that ZEC has limited power to determine election dates and largely relies on the office of the President as provided in section 38 and 39 of the Electoral Act.
“ZEC lacks autonomy to invite and accredit observers as there is prominent involvement of central government including ministers of foreign affairs, state security and women affairs.
“As provided under section 121 of the Electoral Act, ZEC’s administration of local authority by-elections involves the minister responsible for Local government,” the ZESN policy brief read.
ZESN states that the legal framework for elections in Zimbabwe establishes a solid foundation, through the constitution for independence of the electoral commission but such independence is not reinforced by suitable provisions in the enabling legislation.
“A commission like ZEC, with a historical baggage of diminished levels of trust from the public, it has to employ aggressive communication or public relations campaign to cultivate trust and build confidence which could influence public perceptions on independence,” the ZSEN policy brief read further.
In conclusion ZESN noted various findings that where critical for ZEC to consider to support its independence and include the following.
“ZEC lacks necessary judicial powers to investigate, adjudicate and sanction violators of electoral regulations or code of conduct for political parties and candidates.
“The involvement of the minister of justice in approving auditors of commission is a threat to ZEC’s independence.
“The provision for ZEC to make electoral regulations independently is negated by the requirement for approval of minister of justice for any such regulation,” the ZESN policy brief read in its conclusion.
Some recommendations highlighted that Parliament be left to make final selection of commissioners through removing the provision for presidential choice of eight from a list of twelve.
Furthermore, it was recommended that ZEC should strengthen its public relations and messaging strategy to sustain constitutionally provided independence.