THE Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec)’s independence has come into question after the leak of an internal memorandum which seemed to suggest that the commission receives instructions from the ruling Zanu PF on how to treat opposition parties.
The commission has also been criticised over the way it runs the electoral process. The NewsHawks’ senior reporter Bridget Mananavire (BM) spoke to Zec spokesperson Commissioner Joyce Kazembe (JK) on these and other pressing issues around Zec’s operations and its constitutional responsibilities.
BM: You pronounced the wrong winner for Chegutu West constituency in the 2018 election. What caused this and how can Zimbabweans trust your credibility?
JK: In terms of section 66 of the Electoral Act the declaration of results made by the constituency election officer who is otherwise the provincial elections officer, or the chief elections officer are final.
Unless the declaration is set aside by the electoral court on petition or the proceedings relating to the election are declared void under section 50 (1) following the death of a candidate or as a result of a recount of votes under section 67 (a), another candidate is declared under that section to be duly elected.
In the case of Chegutu West being referred to, the commission genuinely and publicly regreted the incident and, because of the cited provision above, it was not possible for the commission to reverse the declaration there and then. The swap of results was based on a genuine computation error at the collation centre by ascribing the number of the winner to the wrong person.
The commission even advised the candidate concerned on what course of action to take. So in terms of credibility, it’s up to Zimbabweans to judge according to what they consider as the standard margin of error, one electoral result out of the 210, and because of that we are considered not credible. I don’t know, you be the judge of that. The person went to court, eventually when he was able to go with the evidence that he had been told to bring.
BM: In terms of internal Zec processes, what action was taken against the staff member who committed the Chegutu West result error?
JK: The investigation by the commission into the matter pointed to a genuine human error and we told affected person to take the steps that are defined in the law. He started doing that but for some reason he was out of time. So against the staff member, it is an error, it’s a human error and you are forgiven. we forgave the person but we told him to be careful next time.
BM: The Electoral Act has still not been aligned with the Constitution. When will this happen, considering that the 2023 general election is nearing?
JK: Soon after the new constitution, which is not new anymore, we are getting to 10 years now, we constituted a group of what we would call the bright legal brains to look at the old constitution and the new constitution and pick out the areas that were not aligned to the new constitution. We did that for three days while they were in a secluded place.
They looked at that, they wrote a paper, we submitted that because every Zimbabwean has a right to go to Parliament for the alignment of the constitution, we submitted that to Parliament.
However, it is also important for the media to highlight those areas that need alignment. We did what we could do, we submitted a list of the areas that needed to be aligned to the new constitution.
Today, some of them we are still awaiting. I will give you an example, the sub-section that governs media monitoring was passed in 2008, that we are still using, although we submitted a long time ago that it needed to be changed. This is the preserve of Parliament. We do not make the law, we apply the law. We have raised those concerns several times and this is where we are.
BM: Have you received any feedback from Parliament on why it is taking long?
JK: It’s difficult to actually put pressure on them, but we have raised these issues at every opportunity, but the issues still remain unattended to. We have lobbied Parliament; we have talked to the portfolio committee in Parliament that is responsible for this, at very opportunity we have, but we are yet to get the answers that we want.
BM: What regulatory powers does Zec have over political party names and what is the process on notifying Zec of the existence of a certain party?
JK: In some countries, Tanzania, and South Africa for example, they register all political parties, but in Zimbabwe we do not register political parties. Any body of people that has a required minimun of 10 people and 10 supporters can come to Zec and say we are a political party Chimuti and we are coming to inform you that we are a political party and we say thank you very much for coming and we write the name down, but that is not registering. That is why we have 174 political parties.
So those intending to contest simply notify the commission of their existence in the form of a letter. However, it should be noted that political parties are not compelled to notify Zec of their existence. Aspiring candidates individually can turn up on nomination court day and file their nomination court papers, without prior notice of their existence in any political party.
BM: Since the commencement of the voter registration exercise this year, how many people have been registered so far and what is the average age group of the new voters?
JK: We never stopped registering. Yes, there was lockdown, but the 73 offices were open and people went there as long as they were observing the Covid-19 regulations. At one time we had to close them when the cases were very high, but we opened them some weeks ago,
The 73, that is the 10 provincial offices and the 63 district offices, so anybody can go there, the only thing is that they are far in-between and people live far from them, but we will soon be going out when the time is due for us to do a mobile voter registration blitz.
So we will be going to the people with hundreds of machinery to make sure that the people have the opportunity to correct their names, to transfer if they relocated and to have new registers that are coming and this is preceded by the Registrar-General who will be issuing identity documentation also in a mobile exercise.
BM: There are several voter registrations campaigns that are taking place, has there been an increase in registered voters?
JK: We have tried to tell people through many avenues that we can access, that they can go to the offices, but there will come a time when we really go out.
BM: On 9 March 2021, the opposition MDC Alliance led by Nelson Chamisa wrote to Zec requesting an all-stakeholders’ meeting to discuss electoral reforms. When are you going to respond to that letter?
JK: We have started engaging stakeholders, but on that specific date you are mentioning this was not an appropriate time, the environment was not conducive to do this. The commission does not engage individual stakeholders, but takes a collective approach to engagements in the spirit of transparency, inclusivity and impartiality.
The question of electoral reforms is the responsibility of Parliament. The concerned party should submit its proposal to Parliament as well, some of them are still there. We did our bit, but the pressure should be on those responsible for the law.
BM: Talking of the Chamisa-led MDC Alliance, Zimbabwe’s biggest opposition party says you have deliberately excluded it from ongoing stakeholder meetings. What is your comment on this?
JK: The commission does not exclude any stakeholder from these engagements, that is part of our mandate to engage the stakeholders and to engage, as a matter of fact, any players in the electoral process or anybody for that matter.
But owing to the Covid-19 restrictions the commission decided to hold engagements with political parties in batches of less than 40 per meeting. Anyone who is aggrieved by the commission’s conduct can approach Zec offices for resolution of disputes in line with the spirit of multiparty liaison committee functions.
However, disputes which are pending before the courts can only be logically resolved by the courts. Where the courts have pronounced themselves, it stands to reason that Zec is bound by such court decisions until they are set aside by the courts.
We will, we are engaging them, in provinces where you do not have many political parties in the areas they have actually been engaged, in Bulawayo, Masvingo, Gweru, all of them were there. But in Harare, where there are about 174 political parties and there is no way we are going to include all those and other stakeholders, faith-based organisations, civil society organisations, the schools and all those.
BM: Section 235 of the constitution stipulates that Zec be independent. However, a recently leaked internal memo written by an official, TM Sunduza, addressed to acting chief elections officer Jane Chigidji revealed that the electoral body is excluding Chamisa’s MDC Alliance from its crucial provincial stakeholder indabas at the behest of “the powers-that-be.” Surely, this dents Zec’s credibility?
JK: Who is the powers-that-be? There is insinuation that the powers that be might be political figures, and that is why you say it dents Zec’s credibility. We are not influenced by anybody. We are a completely independent body and, as you pointed out, this was an internal memo and the content thereof is subject to different interpretation depending on what one believes.
A junior officer seeking clarification from his superiors, who are ourselves, wrote the memo. The commissioners, the CEO and the entire executive are the powers that be he is refereeing to. The commission is an independent statutory body created in terms of section 238 of the constitution. Section 235 of the constitution and section 10a of the Electoral Act guarantee the independence from interference by private organisations, the state and any other organisation and body organ, including political parties.
BM: How independent from political manipulation is Zec? Instead of being accountable to Parliament, Zec is accountable to the minister of Justice; the commission cannot decide the fate of the Chief Elections Officer without authorisation from the minister, and the commission must seek permission from the ministers of Justice and Finance in deciding the conditions of service of Zec personnel. Is Zec beholden to political figureheads?
JK: Let me tell you categorically that Zec is not accountable to the minister of Justice, not at all or to the President or to the minister of Finance. These are structures within the state. We submit our papers through the minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, for him to forward them to Parliament and table them to Parliament for their consideration. He is just a conduit.
The chief elections officer is appointed by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the commission itself has the power to engage, appoint and disappoint the chief elections officer, and once we have made that decision then we commit that information to the powers that be, be it the ministry of Finance that gives us the money and the minister of Justice, who will transfer that information that there is a new CEO, so and so, who has been appointed by the commission.
They have no power in deciding who is the chief elections officer. And section 9 (1) says for the better exercise of his functions the commission shall appoint a chief executive who shall be called the chief elections officer and section 9 (7) says the commission shall employ such persons in addition to the chief elections officer . . . for the function of the commission.
Appointment of commissioners is done in terms of section 237 of the constitution it is the parliamentary committee on Standing Rules and Orders which advertises whenever there is a vacancy, like there are two vacancies now. It then conducts interviews of prospective candidates and shortlists an appropriate number of nominees, 12 normally, for appointment by the President.
Please note that Zec is funded by Treasury, one should be able to distinguish government operations from political activities.
BM: Why has Zec made it so cumbersome for political parties to access the voters’ roll, as there is no transparency regarding the de duplication process and the computer logs?
JK: Cumbersome is a very relative thing depending on where you are, but we operate following the law and the dictates of the law in terms of handling this. The voters’ roll is a pubic document that can be accessed by anyone who wishes. Section 21 (23) of the Electoral Act states that the commission shall, within a reasonable period of time, provide any person who requests it and who pays the prescribed fee with the copy of any voters’ roll, either printed or in electronic format.
The de-duplication exercise is done by a computer, even if the public is interested in coming to witness the exercise, they will not see anything because it is done internally. Anyone can inspect the voters’ roll and at wards.
BM: Former minister Professor Jonathan Moyo has written a book, Excelgate, revealing what he says was the blatant rigging of the 2018 general election in favour of Zanu PF and Zec’s complicit. How credible is Zec in the face of such evidence of electoral fraud?
JK: We have not seen the book. The commission cannot comment on a book that it has not had sight of. We have not had the opportunity to be presented with the book so that we can read it also and be at the same knowledge level.
What the commission can comment on is that its processes are transparent from the opening of the polling stations, right up to the counting and announcement of results. This is done in the presence of candidates or their election agents. The commission itself relies on observer reports more than post-election opinions.
BM: Despite legal stipulations and a court judgement upholding the requirement for the public media to ensure fair and equitable coverage of all political parties during election season, public media continues favouring Zanu PF. Why is Zec failing to enforce the rules?
JK: Zec monitors the media in terms of section 160 (k) of the Electoral Act to ensure the public broadcaster affords equal access to all political players during an election, that is after proclamation. Any aggrieved political player has a right to seek recourse with Zec through Statutory Instrument 33 of 2008 . . . this comes into effect after the proclamation.
But you have got to know, really there has been talk about unfair coverage and so on. What people might not understand is that even during the election period a government that is ruling will be organising government programmes and talking to people. So they will be covered because they are a government.
But everybody is given an opportunity to actually come free of charge to the ZBC, they are given time which they may use to address issues or address the nation, there are stated periods which everyone is given. Some do not take it, after which then there is a period when political parties buy airtime at ZBC. Then if others do not do so , we cannot refuse the opportunity to those that are prepared to pay for airtime.