Zimbabweans, desperate for electoral reforms that will create an environment conducive for genuine, free and fair elections, may be exaggerating the significance of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) principles and guidelines for democratic elections because they are not binding.
But if the government decides to implement the new reforms, it has to push forward the election date as it needs more time to put the necessary machinery and logistics in place. The government has already announced it will hold the elections in March.
The guidelines, which set the parameters for elections in the region to be considered democratic, free and fair, were adopted at the SADC summit in Mauritius last month. Zimbabwe pledged to abide by the reforms, a move that could bring back legitimacy to President Robert Mugabe’s government which is being accused of “stealing” the 2000 parliamentary and the 2002 presidential elections.
A constitutional expert and leader of the National Constitutional Assembly Lovemore Madhuku said though the guidelines were an important step forward because they set the conditions for free and fair elections to take place, they should not be viewed as if they would force President Mugabe out because only local pressure would do that.
Reginald Matshava-Hove of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, which has already drafted reforms necessary for free and fair elections, argued, however, that the guidelines were significant because they were discussed at summit level.
Though they were not enforceable in terms of the law, he said, they provided a foundation for lobbying and grounds for political isolation of members that flouted the principles and guidelines.
Zimbabwe, which is under pressure from both the local and international community to level the playing field, has already conceded to the setting up of an independent electoral commission, the holding of elections in one day, the use of visible indelible ink, the counting of ballots at polling stations, and increasing the number of polling stations.
Though the concessions represent a significant shift by a rigid administration that has turned a blind eye to both local and international criticism of its blatant disregard for basic democratic principles, arguing that the West cannot “teach us democracy”, they fall far short of the principles and guidelines adopted by the 13-member regional organisation.
According to the guidelines member states should ensure full participation of their citizens in the political process. There should be freedom of association, political tolerance, equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media, equal opportunity to exercise the right to vote and be voted for, voter education, an independent judiciary and impartiality of the electoral institutions.
Member states should establish appropriate institutions where issues such as codes of conduct, citizenship, residency, age requirements for eligible voters and compilation of voters’ registers, would be addressed, if they do not already exist.
They should establish impartial, all-inclusive, competent and accountable national electoral bodies staffed by qualified personnel, as well as competent legal entities including effective constitutional courts to arbitrate in the event of disputes arising from the conduct of elections.
The guidelines say members should safeguard human and civil liberties of all citizens including the freedom of movement, assembly, association, expression, and campaigning as well as access to the media on the part of all stakeholders, during electoral processes.
Members should take all necessary measures and precautions to prevent the perpetration of fraud, rigging or any other illegal practices throughout the whole electoral process, in order to maintain peace and security; and ensure the availability of adequate logistics and resources for carrying out democratic elections.
They should also ensure that adequate security is provided to all parties participating in elections as well as transparency and integrity of the entire electoral process by facilitating the deployment of representatives of political parties and individual candidates at polling and counting stations and by accrediting national and other observers or monitors.
Opposition parties in Zimbabwe currently do not have any access to the state media. They also cannot campaign freely in both urban and rural areas.
Madhuku said Zimbabwe needed political reform and not just electoral reforms. “For once I am in agreement with the MDC in deciding to boycott all coming elections because they should not participate in a sham,” he said.
“But what we need is not just electoral reforms. We need political reforms. The guidelines only have a political effect in the sense that member states can tell a colleague that he or she is no longer desirable. But I think Zimbabweans are exaggerating their significance. They should not be viewed as if they will force Mugabe out. Only local pressure will do that,” Madhuku said.
He said the reforms the government had conceded to so far were also not significant. He said though the government had agreed to the setting up of an independent electoral commission, no one knew the composition of that commission yet.
He said it was immaterial whether people voted over one day or two and whether the number of polling stations was increased or not. What was important was that the political environment was conducive for free and fair elections.
“The MDC boycott, therefore, can only be correct if it is followed by action, action to bring about genuine political reform, not just electoral reform,” Madhuku said.
“The MDC has the biggest machinery, besides ZANU-PF, to bring about genuine reform in the country. It is bigger than the National Constitutional Assembly. It is bigger than the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. But it must fight for the right things first, not just electoral reform.”
While conceding that the SADC guidelines were just that, “principles and guidelines”, which were not legally binding, and could only be implemented at the invitation of a member state, Matshava-Hove said they were important because they provided the foundation for lobbying for greater democracy.
“Articles 2.1 and 3.1 are very specific in that they state that ‘in the event a member state decides to extend an invitation…..’, which implies that the member state calls the shots, the guidelines are a step in the right direction because they are designed to create democratic space in member countries. They are meant to encourage reforms not to be punitive.
“Varume vakagara pasi – I am saying varume because there is no woman SADC leader- vakabvumirana kuti ngatiite zvinhu zvedu takadai, asi hatidi zvokubatirana shamhu (Leaders sat at the summit and agreed to the guidelines, but they said they did not want to force anyone),” Matshava-Hove said.
He said it was difficult to discuss the guidelines, or the reforms the government had so far conceded to, because one could not talk about these reforms in a vacuum.
“We have to know, for example, how the Independent Electoral Commission will be chosen. Will it be acceptable to all concerned parties? Is it going to be given sufficient powers?
“But as far as I am concerned, the most critical issue will be, has there been any consultation, and discussion between the major protagonists, the MDC, ZANU-PF and civic organisations.
“If the reforms are just thrown at the people, like the government is trying to do now, people will reject them. I believe the constitutional reforms of 2000 were rejected by the people not because they disagreed with the content, but just because of the process that was followed to come up with the amendments.
“People were not consulted. They were just told to accept or reject the amendments. I believe that ZANU-PF and MDC should take advantage the current parliamentary recess to discuss the reforms.
“Discussions create goodwill and understanding, and remove a lot of suspicion. That is what we need to move forward,” he said.
Parliament adjourned on August 18 and resumes sitting on October 5.
Matshava-Hove said Zimbabwe also needed more time to prepare for the elections and set the new machinery in place if it wanted to hold genuinely free and fair elections. It was therefore impossible to hold the elections in March, which is just six months away. SADC needs to be notified about pending elections at least three months in advance if it is going to monitor them.
He said there should be enough time to set up an acceptable independent electoral commission which could only be established through a constitutional amendment. This required a two-thirds parliamentary majority which meant ZANU-PF needed support from the MDC.
The government would also have to double or treble the manpower and number of polling stations if it wanted to hold elections in one day.
“The logistics for holding such elections alone needs time and money,” he said. “But it is far more important for me for the government to build up confidence in the system rather than adhere to prescribed dates now. It is better to do things properly rather than rush them, because as we say: kumhanya handikusvika.”
Matshava-Hove said the government could use the Seke and Masvingo South by-elections to test the new machinery and fine tune it for next year’s elections. But the question that remains to be answered is, how committed, practically rather than just verbally, is the government to democratic reforms?