COVID-19 and the Feasibility of Holding Free and Fair Elections in Zimbabwe

By Paul Sixpence The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) yesterday published guidance on holding elections under the COVID-19 public health emergency. Due to COVID-19 and the subsequent public health regulations aimed at controlling the spread of the pandemic, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) suspended all electoral activities in Zimbabwe on 25 March 2020. The first set of elections under the new COVID-19 ZEC guidance are provisionally set to be held on 5 December 2020.

KEY POINTS TO NOTE The new ZEC guidelines propose that voter education and political canvassing must be done virtually, through electronic and print media (and social media). Noting that this platform brings together a number of thinkers across different fields and disciplines, I therefore call upon you to a constructive discussion on your thoughts on whether ‘virtual elections’ in Zimbabwe will promote democracy or not? Will ‘virtual campaigns’ not disenfranchise ‘new political entrants’ not well acquainted with the voter, noting that the voter in Zimbabwe connects better via ‘physical connection’ with the candidate. That is the organic nature of our politics that influences voter behavior and voting patterns. Will virtual campaigning also not disenfranchise groups that are traditionally ‘left behind’ those with limited access to information and communication technologies?

THE LAW: ELECTORAL ACT AND THE CONSTITUTION The Electoral Act is largely silent on how physical political canvassing is to be conducted save for provisions on the ‘electoral code of conduct,’ section 160G which speaks to access to free to public broadcasting for purposes of electioneering for duly nominated candidates and political parties. Section 160H of the Electoral Act regulates the conduct of broadcasting houses. I cannot fault the framers of the Act for this oversight, for no one foresaw the advent of a global pandemic of a nature of COVID-19. Further, legislating rules on how physical electioneering is to be conducted would have gone against fundamental rights to assembly and political association for purposes of exercising political rights. So, in this case ZEC will rely of the COVID-19 public health regulations.

In its guidance note, ZEC relied largely on section 239 of the constitution. Section 239 sets out the function of the electoral management body. Among the functions listed under this section, regulating political canvassing (campaigns) is not explicitly mentioned.

QUESTIONS TO PONDER ON In other parts of the world, concerns have been raised on the practicality of holding free and fair elections while respecting COVID-19 regulations which discourage the gathering of large crowds. I have collated some of these concerns registered elsewhere in the world, specifically on physical political canvassing. While guidelines developed by ZEC are welcome, I am of the view that the guidance issued by ZEC does not address some concerns. Elections management experts have advocated for consensus among stakeholders on the process and procedures of conducting elections in the context of COVID-19.

  1. The guidelines speak to voter education but are silent on political canvassing (campaigning for votes). By reading the election management’s body guidance on voter education, of which ZEC says must be done virtually and through other forms of non-contact media, it is safe to assume that the elections management body assumes the same position on political canvassing. The concern in this regard is, will virtual campaigning not give an unfair advantage to seasoned politicians and the incumbents over ‘new entrants’ who may not be well known to the voters. Effective political canvassing in Zimbabwe involves direct contact with the electorate at the grassroots.
  2. How will citizens resident in remote areas communities with limited access to radio, television and social media be capacitated to ensure that they effectively participate in elections, either as candidates or voters?
  3. Over the years, opposition candidates and political parties have raised concern on the independence of the state/‘public’ broadcaster. They allege that the ‘public’ broadcaster is partisan. How will ZEC ensure that all duly nominated candidates access equal and prime airtime on public radio and television at reasonable and affordable rates?
  4. Noting relatively high costs of data, will mobile phone companies through the communications regulatory authority, the Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), be compelled to reduce tariffs to ensure that candidates and voters alike are able to share and access political communication on the vote / elections? I also note limitations here to the effect that prior to 2023 elections will mostly be limited to by-elections and therefore not ‘national.’
  5. Noting the general mistrust of election management bodies in this part of the world, how will ZEC deal with issues of transparency & fairness? Under COVID-19 restrictions, won’t the election process be opaque?
  6. How will ZEC engage the media and non-state election monitoring and observer bodies throughout the electoral process (that is pre-election, on the election day(s), vote counting and announcement of results) noting likely limitations on numbers of people at each polling station in accordance with health regulations to control the spread of COVID-19.
  7. Despite COVID-19 regulations, incumbents in most parts of the world have continued with their political programmes and meeting citizens (voters) but opposition politicians have been denied the same. What measures will ZEC put in place to ensure all political players play by the same rules, noting that beyond public health regulations, the Electoral Act does not explicitly give ZEC powers to regulate the manner in which organic political organizing is conducted.

Photo Credit: Reuters.