COVID-19 impact on Zim’s electoral processes

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Myles Matarise

matarisem@dailynews.co.zw 

ZIMBABWE Election Support Network (ZESN) recently hosted a ZOOM public meeting to discuss the impact and implications of COVID-19 on electoral processes in Zimbabwe.

A total of 53 people participated in the virtual ZOOM meeting.

The panellists included Priscilla Misihairambwi from the Thokozani Khupe-led MDC-T, Linda Masarira the president of the Labour Economists and African Democrats (LEAD) party, Jacob Mafume from the MDC-Alliance, Taona Mwanyisa, a regional expert in elections and the moderator was Rejoice Ngwenya a renowned political and socio-economic analyst.

Zanu PF Secretary for Legal Affairs, Paul Mangwana was scheduled to attend but failed and cited internet connectivity challenges.

Among other things, the meeting discussed the likely impact of the pandemic on current electoral reform processes in Parliament, progress on the current electoral reform agenda, whether or not to proceed with scheduled by-elections, whether the environment is conducive for the holding of elections and other electoral processes, and the implications of all this on democracy.

It was emphasized that the importance of elections lies in that they undergird the ‘social contract’ between those who are elected and those who elect them, and that filling vacancies with appointment would result in the breaking of that social contract.

Masarira was of the view that the Covid-19 virus has given Zimbabwe’s policy makers, particularly the members of the National Assembly, an excuse to slow down on implementing electoral reforms.

“Policy makers have never been sincere about working on electoral reforms even before the pandemic,” Masarira said. The same view was echoed by another panellist, Mafume.

Mwanyisa also concurred with the position adding that the electoral reform process had to date been more of elite driven rather than widely consultative and inclusive.

On the contrary, Misihairabwi insisted that a lot had been done in Parliament before the lockdown with respect to electoral reforms. “The current reform process, which included input from civil society, had sufficiently been consultative and there was at present enough on the table for Parliament to take the process forward.”

Misihairimbwi cited the ZESN Electoral Amendment Bill and Electoral Reform Petition that is already before Parliament and the input from the Political Actors Dialogue (POLAD). “What is only left is to determine a process that will bring all these contributions together under one platform and to harness our energy towards electoral reform.”

Misihairambwi expressed that there would be progress as Parliament had just resumed meeting, albeit in smaller committees.  “There are arrangements in place for public hearings to be held soon, starting with the proposed Constitutional Amendment Bill.”

The public meetings will follow strict precautionary measures so as to avoid exposing parliament’s staff and the public to Covid-19.

On the decision to either proceed with or postpone by-elections, it was generally acknowledged that protecting peoples’ health is important.

“Elections can still be held as there is usually low turnout and consultations on reforms can still go with limits on gatherings adhered to and radio for example, being utilised,” Masarira said.

It was therefore noted that the decision to postpone by-elections under the present circumstances is commendable.

Moreover, the preparation for campaigns, the updating of the voters’ roll, campaigning, and voting itself would all be difficult in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, it was also observed that the decision to postpone by-elections also has legal implications, as the Constitution provides for regular elections and the filling in of vacancies within prescribed time periods.

Mwanyisa noted the need to protect both the health of the people as well as the health of democracy.

With regards to the recently recalled members of the opposition in Parliament, Mafume in particular was of the view that the ruling party is taking advantage of the lockdown and suspension of elections, knowing the vacancies will not be filled.

“The cancellation of elections sets a very dangerous precedence and there is need to sustain the election momentum and culture since the Covid-19 may not end soon.

“In a situation where electoral vacancies continue being created as in Zimbabwe, it makes no sense for elections not to be held.

“Democracy is expensive but dictatorship is even more expensive,” Mafume said further. He moreover urged civil society to take a more serious referee and oversight role in ensuring that electoral processes are taken seriously.

Three of the panellists were of the thinking that finding alternative methods to the current electoral processes would be difficult and costly.

It was highlighted that the methods such as online registration and online voting are expensive and not accessible to everyone, particularly the rural folk.

It was noted that precautions put in place by some countries that have held successful elections under the present environment, for example South Korea, would also be difficult to implement in resource-constrained Zimbabwe.

However, there was unanimous agreement that Zimbabwe should invest in finding ways to do things differently and to channel resources towards ensuring that the environment is made conducive for the holding of elections under the current circumstances.

When the debate was opened to the public, the general consensus was that there is need to ensure that democracy prevails and is protected by ensuring that alternative methods for holding elections are adopted.

There was a proposal that this would be a great opportunity to introduce postal voting for those in Zimbabwe and those in the diaspora as well.

It was also noted that there is need to get rid of ‘career politicians’ in Parliament who have been there for long but have not achieved any results, as the success of electoral reforms start with the quality of those that are in Parliament.

Participants also argued that there is need for intensive voter education in order to improve the quality of electoral processes in Zimbabwe.

The virtual meeting was a success as it achieved the objective of keeping the discussion on elections and COVID-19 alive and proposing ways of ensuring that electoral processes continue in the current environment.

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