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Why ban civic participation in voter education?
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition

January 18, 2011

The word 'reform' refers to improvement, a positive step in the right direction or change in the superior way. It is not only about doing things differently but doing things differently to positively impact on a situation. However it seems in Zimbabwe's political context, the term was lost in translation. As part of 'reforms' to the Electoral Act, the Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa proposed the banning of civic and foreign organisations' participation in voter education in Zimbabwe pointing out that only those, which are 'Zimbabwean in character', will be allowed. The 'reform' proposed by the Minister cannot be referred to as a step in the right direction.

The ban coupled, with threats made by the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe at the ZANU PF congress to 'flush out' civic society organisations only confirms growing concerns over the diminishing democratic space for civil society organisations in the country ahead of a constitutional referendum and possible elections later this year. the crackdown on CSOs by the state, on mythical allegations of being 'Western stooges trying to unconstitutionally overthrow the government' is a calculated ploy to squeeze civil society out of the democratic space and arm twist citizens to comply with ZANU PF's three decades of failed policies.

What is more disturbing is that the so called reforms recommend that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission should conduct civic education and in turn license other organisation or institutions to do the same. It is no secret that the ZECX Board is itself partisan, representing ZANU PF and the two MDC formations while the secretariat is allegedly still infested with state operatives and the military who were key in the 2008 Presidential election sham. In every election, voter and civic education are necessary to ensure that all constituencies understand their rights, their political system, and how and where to vote and lastly to motivate them to participate in elections.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2004) lists voter education as an imperative principle in the conducting of democratic elections. For an election to be successful and democratic, voters must understand their rights and responsibilities, and must be sufficiently knowledgeable and well informed to cast ballots that are legally valid and to participate meaningfully in the voting process. One can imagine the undisputable results of banning civic involvement in voter education and making it a preserve of ZEC, which in itself is a politically compromised commission.

Monopolisation of national processes by political parties has become a cancer in Zimbabwe. One would have thought that the government would draw lessons from the constitutional reform process which was turned into a political power contestation between the MDC and ZANU PF negating the whole notion of awarding citizens and opportunity to make personal decisions devoid of any political interpretations. Civic society organisations unilaterally conducted civic education, which the government and political parties failed to do. As the country moves towards a constitutional referendum and possible elections, it is important to provide Zimbabweans with further education and encouragement to participate in these processes.

Apart from the politically compromised nature of ZEC, government should ask itself whether the ZEC is financially capacitated to provide civic education in light of revelations by the commission last year through the chairperson, Justice Mutambanengwe that the commission is financially challenged to conduct elections. ZEC is in a financial quagmire, mainly as a result of an equally financially compromised country. How then can ZEC conduct the elections at the same time providing civic education without any financial resources?

Instead of earnestly working towards sanitising the political environment to make it more 'election friendly', the government is chasing after the wrong cause of electoral malpractice and providing the wrong solutions. It is critical that prior to the holding of elections, the country must undergo rigorous reformation of the security sector, media and ZEC itself to rid these institutions of undemocratic forces. Such should be the focus of government as opposed to impeding on the work of well-meaning institutions.

Civics in Zimbabwe are and constituted by Zimbabweans. These Zimbabweans have constitutional rights to exercise their fundamental civil and political liberties. Civic education is one such constitutional right that civics should defend. The right of civic society to participate in national process does not come from the generosity of the inclusive government or Chinamasa. It is God given and should remain thus.

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