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File pic: Priscilla Chigumba, ZEC Chairperson during the 2018 elections

Opinion

Next elections may be won or lost on voter registration

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FOLLOWING the recent Zambian elections and the huge voter turnout — together with its dramatic outcome — Zimbabwe’s political and civil society organisations should be jolted into action to ensure people register to vote.

And indeed that they actually vote on election day.

The outcome of elections is as dependent on the pre-voting processes as it is on the act of voting. An election is a process, not an event.

This means there must be a serious, comprehensive and non-partisan pre-election voter awareness campaign aimed at conscientising voters about the importance of participating in the electoral process.

Youths have now become the largest voting bloc in many African countries, including Zimbabwe. Zambia demonstrated that. During the 2018 elections, youths were about 44% of registered voters in Zimbabwe, but in 2023 they will surge above 50%, making them an electoral trump card.

Voting ensures a responsive, accountable and democratically elected government. In a democracy, a free, fair and credible vote is the fundamental tool through which citizens can express their political preferences, grievances and developmental aspirations.

Zimbabwe has always struggled to hold proper elections since 1980. Most of its elections have been characterised by manipulation, intimidation, violence and vote-rigging.

These problems are to be found in many competitive authoritarian regimes.

Rigged elections come in various forms: ballot-stuffing, hounding or arrest of opposition leaders, intimidation of opposition supporters and manipulation of the counting of votes, among other deceitful interventions and methods.

There is also the issue of refusing opposition access to the public media, preventing them from campaigning in certain areas, staffing the electoral commission with partisan officials and use of the state security apparatus, not just to intimidate, but also campaign, manoeuvre behind the scenes to help the ruling party and block transition upon losing.

Ballot fraud remains a major weapon of rigging. Dictators believe it is not the voting that really counts, but who counts the vote. This has particularly been true in Zimbabwe where elections are stolen through ballot fraud, over and above the skewing of the whole electoral process and playing field, tipping it in favour of the ruling party and use of coercive tactics and terror.

Yet at the heart of it all remains a consistent factor — authoritarian regimes view elections not as an institutionalised and convenient mechanism within an accountable governance process, but as a carefully orchestrated and choreographed event packaged as a spectacle to reinforce the incumbent’s position and test the oppositional waters.

For dictators, elections are also often seen as a safety valve to manage threats.

To avoid elections being a mere ritual, parties, civil society organisations and special interest groups must get people to register to vote.

Providing voters with information on the electoral process, political parties and their manifestos, poll antecedents of the candidates and other things is critical to enable them cast an enlightened and informed vote. This means voter education, registration and voting are equally important. They are part of the process and reinforce each other.

Parties, civic groups and volunteers must provide critical information to create a better-informed, self-driven citizenry and, ultimately, a more responsive, transparent and accountable government.

Civil society organisations must particularly be more systematic in approaching elections. They need to ensure voter education, registration, voters’ roll inspection and voting in a non-partisan and sustainable way.

For its part, the government must develop voter registration procedures that are transparent, inclusive and do not disenfranchise voters.

Civil society should encourage citizens, particularly the youth, to register and to vote. They should also design public information campaigns aimed at youth to explain the registration process and how citizens can check their entries onto the voters’ roll and monitor the voter registration process to assess its accuracy and inclusiveness.

International actors should provide assistance to ensure free, fair and credible elections. Whoever wins under such conditions has got the people’s genuine mandate and their express will to govern until the next elections.

 

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