Elections are very important events in the life of a country. They provide the basis for confidence in a country, and hence when citizens show their support for one political party over others, and the losers accept the result, both the country and the international community can have confidence in governance of the country. However, when elections are deeply disputed, and on reliable grounds for the dispute, both citizens and other countries lose confidence in the country.
This has been the reality for Zimbabwe for the last seventeen years; i.e. five elections.
So, what do Zimbabwean citizens think about elections? There are some answers from the Afrobarometer Round Seven (2017) survey on Zimbabwe:
• 64% voted in the last election;
• 38% felt it was free and fair;
• 77% think that elections are the way to choose our leaders;
• 61% think that we need many parties for real choice;
• 54% attended a rally;
• 90% did not work for a party or a candidate;
• 56% think that political party competition leads to violence;
• 52% fear political violence;
• 76% are careful about what they say about politics;
• 67% are careful about which political party they join;
• 64% are careful about how they vote.
Moreover, importantly, 65% do not trust the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
Clearly, citizens do not view elections with any relish or excitement, and if the measures of the robustness of democracy are acceptable elections and the alternation of political power, the cynicism or disinterest of the citizen is understandable. Consider the following:
• There has been no alternation of power since 1980, and only once since 1965;
• Almost every election since 1980 has had a degree of violence and elections in Zimbabwe are the most violent in all SADC countries governed by a former liberation movement;
• Every election since 2000 has been deeply disputed, and one (2008) has been rejected by the regional and continental community;
• In the only election when there was an alternation, there was no ceding of power
• Finally, election dispute mechanisms do not work - the courts have yet to deal satisfactorily with election disputes from 2000 onwards.
On top of this cynicism, the playing field usually does not seem remotely level:
• There is no evidence of a commitment to the principle of constitutionalism. There is an unfortunate trend across the government, political parties, and even civil society bodies to disregard constitutions when they are inconvenient;
• There has been no attempt to implement the constitution in any meaningful way, & already an attempt to amend it;
• There have been no credible reforms of the state-regime conflation;
• The security sector continues to be partisan in defiance of both the constitution & the law;
• Traditional leadership continues to be partisan in defiance of both the constitution & the law;
• There has been no credible attempt to open the media space & harassment of the independent media continues;
• There is severe intolerance and repression of citizens exercising the rights to freedom of expression and assembly;
• And so on and so on.
All of this without considering the direct issues around the actual management of elections:
• Concerns about the independence of ZEC;
• The continued involvement of the former Registrar-General;
• The adjustment of the Electoral Act to meet acceptable standards. VERITAS reckons the Electoral Act needs over 60 amendments in order for our Act to meet best practice standards;
• The problems around the voters roll & the unavailability of an electronic copy of the 2013 roll;
• Finally, but not exclusively, the dangers behind polling station specific voting.
Then there is the issue of what to vote for and the shambolic state of all the political parties that will participate in the elections: the factionalism and the fracturing within political parties, and the growing intra-party violence.
So, when the election game seems so flawed, and the participants equally so, why would anyone believe that an election has any possibility of solving the country’s problems?
The deeper issue is that elections do not solve a national crisis: they can be a consequence of a solution to a national crisis, not a solution in themselves. Negotiations are the way to solve a national crisis, because negotiations lead to political settlements, which, in turn lead to transitional arrangements. Whether this is called a National Transitional Authority (NTA), a Government of National Unity (GNU), or whatever name, the critical issue is that transitional arrangements undertake the reforms necessary to hold acceptable elections that are undisputed.
We are putting the electoral cart before the national crisis horse, and that is why citizens are all so skeptical about the process and value of elections.