Can a new constitution guarantee credible elections in Zimbabwe?

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In recent times, Zimbabwe’s ability to hold free, fair and credible elections has come under scrutiny after the adoption of a new constitution. Following the 2008 violent and disputed elections, a power sharing government between the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T and MDC-M) was formed.

This followed the signing of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) brokered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The leader of ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe, remained President of the coalition government while the leaders of the two factions of the MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara were made Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively. The transitional government has had to survive a period of five years, marked by conflict, unilateralism in decision making and mistrust between the two top officials in the government. Since 2011, the tension between Mugabe and Tsvangirai has escalated to a climax that has seen the former calling for urgent elections without the necessary reforms stipulated in the GPA.

In the midst of the squabble between the parties to the GPA, SADC, as guarantor of the GPA, intervened and assisted the parties in agreeing to an election roadmap. The election roadmap stipulated the necessary reforms that should be carried out before Zimbabwe holds its next elections. These reforms include the drafting of a new constitution and holding a referendum to approve it, the promotion of equality, national healing, cohesion and unity, recognising freedom of expression and communication, undertaking the security sector reform and reconstitution of the four commissions including the electoral commission, the media commission, the anti-corruption commission and human rights commission.

Indeed, a new constitution was passed and signed into law by President Mugabe on May 22, 2013. At face value, the new constitution seemed to be the timely instrument to level the political playing field in Zimbabwe, which previously appeared to be closely aligned to ZANU-PF. Importantly, the constitution curbed the powers of the presidency and abolished the post of prime minister. Henceforth, a former president would no longer be immune from prosecution. Moreover, the presidential term has been limited to two five year terms. In addition, the new constitution strengthened the power of the courts and made provision for a peace and reconciliation commission charged with the administration of post-conflict justice and healing.

However, despite the adoption of a new constitution it can be fairly argued that the conditions on the ground are not conducive for holding democratic, credible and legitimate elections.

Firstly, it cannot be disputed that free political activity as a keystone to democratic and legitimate election is not recognised in Zimbabwe. This requirement has been undermined by security interventions as reflected in the disruption of rallies and peaceful marches, particularly in the build up to elections. The security force composed of military chiefs, brigadiers, colonels and war veterans, whose behaviour is rooted in the days of the liberation struggle and bears strongly the notion that the country cannot be led by someone without war credentials, often dictates the direction of polls. For example, in the build up to the 2008 general election, the abuse of human rights and the selective application of the law were central to ZANU-PF’s campaign strategies. Reports from Zimbabwe suggest that this tendency is far from over and in the absence of the stipulated security sector reform, the integrity of the upcoming polls is likely to be compromised by incidents of violence, intimidation and other forms of human rights abuses. Not long ago, a police raid on MDC offices led to the arrest of a number of party officials and the prominent human rights lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa. This is a good indication that should the elections be held this year, we are likely to see the second leg of the 2008 violent polls.

Secondly, as part of the necessary reforms stipulated in the election roadmap, the media was supposed to be neutral in order to promote a level playing field. However that has not materialised in Zimbabwe. In fact all the major media outlets are still being controlled and manipulated by ZANU-PF, leaving opposition parties without any real voice. Recently, only two new radio stations, Zimpapers’ radio talk (Star FM) and the AB communications ZIFM, which appear to be in the service of Zanu-PF, were granted new licences to broadcast ahead of the forthcoming elections, while the prospects of t other media outlets to freely operate in Zimbabwe remains bleak.
An equally important institution that was earmarked for reform but which seems to be embroiled in partisan politics is the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).

reviously, administrative personnel of the ZEC were drawn from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and military intelligence which, which have all been in the service of ZANU-PF. There is little evidence to suggest that the integrity of the ZEC has been restored and that the military would in fact not be running the elections from behind the scene. Besides ZEC’s partisanship to the Zanu-PF, the voter’s roll had not been updated and remains dominated by “ghost” voters. The voter registration process has also been highly partisan, with ZANU-PF supporters finding it easy to register while those perceived to be MDC supporters have experienced challenges with the registration process.

In the end, it must be kept in mind that although a new constitution has been adopted in Zimbabwe, the situation in the country remains volatile given ZANU-PF’s continued dominance of the political space and the fact that the major reforms stipulated in the election roadmap are still in deficit. It is difficult to imagine how free, fair and credible elections could be held under such conditions as described above.

Mr John Mashala is a research assistant at the IGD and his ideas do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

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