Calls for Electoral Law Reform Intensify

The Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust (SAPST) in partnership with Zimbabwe Institute (ZI) and the Parliament of Zimbabwe facilitated a workshop in Bulawayo on the petition on electoral reforms submitted by the ERC and 14 other civil society organisations in September 2015. This comes after public hearings that were held in several parts of the country in October last year by the Committee on Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. The conference drew delegates from Parliament of Zimbabwe, Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services, Zimbabwe Republic Police, Chief’s Council, Attorney General’s Office, and civil society organisations that are party to the Constitutional Consortium coordinated by the ZI. The ERC petition seeks to push for alignment of electoral laws to the Constitution through the Parliament of Zimbabwe, and other reforms on the electoral legal framework. While critical, alignment alone might not achieve the desired changes to the conduct of elections in Zimbabwe, clearly, there is need for all stakeholders to focus on the comprehensive implementation of the existing laws. In his key note address, Speaker of Parliament Advocate Jacob Mudenda said reforms should not serve partisan political interests or pander to external interests, but must adhere to constitutional promptings. He added that voter education needed to be intensified, highlighting statistics of past elections had revealed serious voter apathy in Zimbabwe. “I was very shocked to see 1980, 1985 and 1996 figures. During the 1996 presidential elections there were 4 822 299 registered voters but only 1 557 558 people voted, which is 32% people that voted,” he said. “In 2002 there were 5,5 million registered voters but only 3 130 000 voted. There is something wrong somewhere. During the 2005 National Assembly elections 5,6 million people were registered as voters but only 2,6 million voted. “In 2013 when out of the 5 874 110 people registered to vote only 3 480 000 or 59,2% voted. Generally, those people that vote have not scored more than 25% except for 2013 which means there is something wrong somewhere,” said Mudenda. Adv. Mudenda then summed up the need for consensus building towards achieving credible, free and fair elections and reiterated the need for electoral law reform, amongst other reforms, to answer questions on voter apathy. Speaking at the same occasion on behalf of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, Deputy Attorney General Mr Kumbirai Hodzi said Government is committed to the creation of a conducive environment for free and fair elections and will ensure that Zimbabweans exercise their right to vote. He commended the ERC and 14 other civic society groups for lodging a petition couched in respectful language to Parliament calling for urgent reforms to the Electoral Act. Mr Hodzi said unlike some other petitions, the ERC petition used restrained language that moved the Government to see the importance of engagement on the issue highlighting that it was written in professional language which is respectful and objective. Information, Media and Broadcasting Secretary Mr George Charamba, during his presentation, advised political parties to set up their own print media houses in order to ensure their coverage. This comes in the wake of members of the Opposition, who complain that State media do not carry their political advertisements during elections. He indicated that the Constitution provides for self-regulation of the print media, but imposes restrictions on the broadcasting sector because of limited frequencies which are considered as national property. Mr Charamba clarified that during elections, his ministry surrenders all media institutions to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and there is no way his Ministry is able to regulate the media. Speaking at the same event, SAPST Program Advisor Mr Phillip Muziri commended Adv Mudenda for his challenge to Zimbabweans to bring their model laws for consideration by the Legislature. He said this opened an avenue for possible public engagement of various committees by stakeholders. Committees are empowered to consider legislation referred to them by resolution of the House or by the Speaker, as well as to review existing legislation. Mr Muziri also indicated that there was need to incorporate Diasporan votes, pointing out that other African countries had made similar arrangements without major challenges. “Mozambique in 2004 constitutional amendment entitled all citizens to vote in countries of residence (Article 9 of Law No. 18/2002). Namibia, since 1989 the country has allowed citizens to vote at about 24 polling stations set up abroad,” he said. “In South Africa, 2013 Electoral Act amendment empowers citizens to register and vote abroad in national elections while in Botswana they Introduced diaspora voting in 1997 through an amendment to the Electoral Act (s5(3)).” Furthermore, Mr Muziri pointed out that there was need to adequately resource the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to enable it to efficiently discharge its duties. ERC director Mr Tawanda Chimhini said the basis for their petition were challenges generally faced during elections where people called for a clear legal framework for administering elections, and issues to do with challenges in the political environment, and the need for electoral reforms. It emerged that the biggest hindrance to align, reform and implement is political will. This was buttressed by Constitutional law expert Professor Lovemore Madhuku insisting that the problem surrounding electoral processes in Zimbabwe is not entirely in deficient legislation but in its implementation. The two-day workshop ended on a high note with the Speaker of Parliament calling for proposed Bills from civil society organisations, but maintaining the stance to take the law to the relevant Ministries for further engagement.

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