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Proposed Electoral Act amendments questioned
March 23, 2004

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HARARE - Civil society in Zimbabwe on Monday condemned a move by the government to amend the Electoral Act, saying the amendment would undermine next year's parliamentary elections.

"The planned changes to the Electoral Act will result in the tightening of the operations of the government-appointed Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) and unless there are fundamental changes to the process of holding elections, next year's elections would be easily declared not free and fair," chairman of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), Reginald Matchaba-Hove, told IRIN.

The Electoral Amendment Bill, published in the Government Gazette last week, proposes changes to several clauses, particularly pertaining to voter registration, the voters' roll and postal ballots.

In a move perceived as an attempt to elbow NGOs out of voter education, the Bill proposes that only the ESC be allowed to conduct voter education.

Funds for voter education would have to be sourced locally, and foreign funds could only be donated to the ESC, which would then distribute them to organisations authorised to conduct voter education.

The Bill, expected to be presented to parliament for debate, also says those eligible for postal ballots would include members of the military away on duty, diplomatic staff and staff away on electoral duty.

Matchaba-Hove said the proposed amendments were similar to those sanctioned into law by President Robert Mugabe just before the 2002 March presidential election.

Although the laws were later declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, they enabled surviving members of the military, like Brigadier Douglas Nyikayaramba, to be appointed chief elections officer, with members of the army, the police and other civil servants conducting the elections.

"The planned electoral amendments are in clear violation of the Southern Africa Development Community, (SADC) Parliamentary Forum on norms and standards for holding elections, which states that no civil servants should conduct elections," Matchaba-Hove said.

"Civic society has always called for the creation of an independent electoral commission to run elections, while observers and monitors would be drawn from civic groups. The independent commission would be responsible for the entire electoral process, from registration right up to the counting process," he added.

Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Commission, which has been agitating for a new constitution, said there was nothing new about the proposed amendments.

"We have had these laws before - they are just reproducing laws that we have had before, and have been thrown away by the supreme court, because they violated certain provisions of the constitution," Madhuku told IRIN.

The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change has threatened to boycott next year's parliamentary elections, arguing that the playing field was not level. They also alleged that if these elections were held in conditions similar to those of the 2002 presidential poll, it would be easy to rig them.

The opposition, along with most Western observers, condemned the 2002 presidential election as flawed.

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