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Jury still out on effectiveness of Zimbabwe's electoral reforms
October 27, 2006

MUTARE - As voters go the polls this weekend to elect councillors for rural district wards, Zimbabweans are wondering whether the recently enacted reforms are improving the conduct of the electoral process and practice.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Act and the Electoral Act (2004) were successfully passed by Parliament in 2004, while the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment Act sailed through last year.

Promulgation of these legislative pieces were part of concerted efforts by various sections of the Zimbabwean society in a bid to help improve several constitutional, institutional and procedural aspects of the country's electoral process, amid growing contentions that the entire process was hopelessly skewered against opposition politics and in favour of the status quo.

Thus, the express purpose of the electoral reforms have been to level Zimbabwe's political playing field, although officials in the ruling ZANU PF party have consistently denied it was unbalanced to the opposition's disadvantage.

Now, during the polls in which a total of 863 rural ward seats are being contested countrywide, the issue of whether a level playing field is being achieved remains in abeyance.

"These reforms mean nothing to me when election procedures keep favouring those of one party, ZANU PF," says Getrude Sithole, a supporter of the main wing of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

When the nomination court for the rural elections opened last month, 1 326 seats were up for grabs. By the time it closed, however, 463 seats had been won unopposed - 454 by ZANU PF candidates, eight by the MDC and one by an independent.

Over 500 MDC candidates were disqualified for various reasons, including having their names missing on voters' rolls or the aspiring candidates' failure to timeously produce police and ratepayers' clearance certificates on nomination day.

Sithole, who is visiting relatives in the city, says no polling is taking place in her rural ward in Chipinge because a ruling party candidate waltzed in unopposed, following disqualification of his MDC opponent.

"Why waste time talking about reform when one party gets nearly half the seats before the voting starts?" she asks angrily, her voice quivering with emotion.

But Charles Pemhenayi, a member of the central committee of ZANU PF, is convinced a relative peaceful atmosphere and unhindered mobility in rural areas by candidates of both parties campaigning in the poll are directly attributable to legislative electoral reforms.

"It's commendable that Zimbabweans are beginning to display this level of political maturity, no violence and respect for your opponent, which were not so common in previous elections," says Pemhenayi, a former ZANU PF provincial spokesperson who now runs a private labour and human resources consultancy in the city.

Adds Pemhenayi, who also farms tobacco in the Odzi area, west of here: "ZANU PF has been able to lead in rural areas because the electorate can see the party's tangible programmes, such as land redistribution, and its political history is well known. The MDC offers neither of these."

Doreen Nelson, a board member of the Zimbabawe Election Support Network (ZESN), a non-partisan organisation established six years ago to uphold the principles of a transparent and fair electoral process, welcomes the reforms but insists more needs to be done.

"The network commends the relatively peaceful atmosphere that prevailed in most areas during the pre-election period," Nelson says.

She is speaking to members of the media fraternity in this eastern border city, part of her organisation's media and information networking activities. ZESN, she says, was one of the organisations that forwarded proposals to amend electoral laws to responsible authorities in 2003-4.

"I'm glad to report that some of our proposals were accepted and incorporated into the new electoral reform laws," she tells the scribes, proudly noting that one of them was the introduction of translucent ballot boxes which has since been adopted.

She says ZESN will continue to lobby for the inclusion of those aspects of its proposals that were left out of the amended legislation. Among other suggestions, her organisation is calling for the newly-established Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to be granted "full and sole" responsibility over the management of all elections.

ZESN is also pushing for constitutional amendments to create a two-tier system for the election of legislators. One group will be elected through the constituency system, which is currently the case, and another through proportional representation, it suggests.

In addition, the ZESN seeks the abandonment of presidential appointments and the introduction of a postal voting system for Zimbabweans in the diaspora, as long as safeguards for transparency and fairness are put into place for the latter.

It also wants the appointment of election observers and monitors - both local and international - to be guaranteed by a legislative Act.

The ZESN, whose membership comprises at least 35 civic groups and non-governmental organisations based in Zimbabwe, is deploying 520 observers in at least 450 wards in Saturday's election.

"We hope the prevailing peaceful environment shall continue to prevail during and after the elections," says Nelson, before she and her team drove up Mutare's panoramic Christmas Pass to begin the 270km journey to the capital Harare.

For many Zimbabweans, however, the jury is still out on whether or not the electoral laws are contributing meaningfully to the country's much-maligned electoral process. - ZimOnline

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