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Report on ZESN regional stakeholders round table on elections in southern Africa
Amanda Atwood,
March 19, 2007

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Dozens of representatives from civil society, governments, election management bodies and universities from across the region gathered at a roundtable on elections organised by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, ZESN, on 15-16 March 2007. Speakers and presenters alike set the context of the discussion, regularly referring back to Sunday 11 March, 2007 when opposition leaders were arrested and beaten for organising a rally in Highfields, Harare.

While it would be impossible to capture the ins and outs of every presentation and discussion, below are some highlights captured from the two-day event.

The opening remarks by academic and civil society actor Walter Kamba set the stage for the conference. Kamba is a former Vice Chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe and was Chairman of Zimbabwe's Electoral Supervisory Commission from 1984-1994.

Leaders must exercise power to benefit the people, Kamba said. And as many after him stressed, Kamba emphasised the importance of democracy as the best way to ensure that citizens can run their own lives and the country is governed fairly. listen to audio file

Quoting former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, he cited the centrality of good governance and democracy in promoting development and ending poverty. listen to audio file

Similarly, in his vote of thanks, Noel Kututwa, Executive Director of the Human Rights Trust of Southern Africa (SAHRIT), quoted NEPAD saying that sustainable development is impossible in the absence of democracy, good governance, peace and human rights. listen to audio file

Many speakers emphasised that democracy is not an event, it is a process, and a country's entire political and economic environment play a role. Electoral systems, legal systems, and the environment and conditions across the board must be fair, legitimate, transparent and representative. In the words of SADC Parliamentary Forum Senior Programmes Officer Takawira Musavengana, there can be no meaningful elections with an uneven playing field. listen to audio file

Electoral conditions include—but are not limited to—the political environment in which elections are held, the constitution, electoral and legal systems, the demarcation of constituencies, voter registration and the quality of the voters role, access to media and having a balanced media environment, funding, voter administration and voter turn out.

Debate also touched on the question of "favour-based campaigning," or campaigning by giving voters material goods such as beer and food, paying school fees, or promising or starting development projects solely in exchange for the promise of a vote. Many presenters and audience members alike expressed their concern with this practise, describing it as buying votes, leaving elections open to corruption and bribery, and also as giving wealthier candidates—or those belonging to richer or more established political parties an unfair disadvantage.

However, in his presentation, Mike Mataure, director of the Public Affairs and Parliamentary Support Trust (and former Zanu PF MP and Speaker of the House) suggested that, particularly when dealing with voters living in poverty, that is actually the only way to campaign. To arrive in a poor village and simply ask residents to vote for you—without providing them any sort of material support—was unrealistic and unfair to the voters, he argued. listen to audio file

Mataure also shared the ways in which the quality of the election campaign reflects that of electoral environment. For example, in Malawi, political opponents share common platforms, exchange ideas and discuss positions with one another in public. But in Zimbabwe, politicians do damage to the electoral process with inappropriate language and behaviour. Things like calling the opponent a liar, thief, or puppet, as well of course as beating supporters, defacing campaign material, and attacking candidates all damage not only people involved but the democratic process and therefore people as a whole. listen to audio file

Speakers from Zimbabwe and across the region discussed the challenges many political actors have faced when liberation heroes or other politicians are so idolized that people will not see the truth about them.

Presentations from Zambia, Malawi and Kenya reminded the audience that other countries in the region have been in similar situations to Zimbabwe, and through carefully planned and well strategised plans, coordinated action across civil society helped these countries to rewrite their constitutions and bring government more in line with what the people wanted, despite the unpopularity of these suggestions with these countries' ruling parties.

However, these presentations informed audience members that, even after constitutional reform or a new leadership in government, civil society organisations and the citizenry alike still faced challenges in holding the new government accountable and instituting real change. These discussions from countries which have been independent longer than Zimbabwe stressed how lengthy the process of genuine democratisation is, and warned against both impatience and despair.

As Kenyan Koki Muli, executive director of the Institute for Education in Democracy put it, change is as inevitable in Zimbabwe as it was in Kenya. However, when pro-democracy activists were fed up with their government, she said, they had no plan beyond getting rid of Moi. Muli warned Zimbabweans not to make a similar mistake of short sightedness. listen to audio file

She also reminded the audience that, in order to have any change, activists and organisations must reach out to people and develop their constituencies and membership. listen to audio file

The marginalisation of women in all aspects of the election process was raised by a range of presenters who spoke specifically from a "gender perspective," but there was no specific presentation on elections from a youth perspective. Thus, while some speakers did refer to the ways in which youth are manipulated during elections, ferried by political parties to be thug gangs or rent-a-crowds, there was no presentation dedicated to discussing alternative ways in which young people could be engaged in elections, encouraged to register to vote, or educated and supported in finding ways to play their part as active, engaged citizens in a positive and productive way.

Common points featured in many presentations included:

  • The mere existence of elections does not necessarily mean democracy or good governance. Elections are a component of democracy, but not the only one.
  • The need for the election management body to be fearlessly independent, honest, transparent and reliable.
  • Zimbabwe and other countries in the region have made a range of pledges such as the OAU/AU Declaration on the Principles Governing Democratic Elections in Africa and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, but they have not incorporated these ideals into local level national practise.
  • The need for a longer time scale for monitoring and assessment of electoral conditions, rather than simply a few days before elections.

Despite being featured on the programme, the Ministry of Justice did not send a speaker. At the last minute, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission pulled out because they said they could not make any presentation on electoral reform as it was 'purely political" issue and not within their Constitutional mandate to discuss. Jonathan Moyo said that "given the current political tensions," he thought it would be inappropriate for him to be there.

ZESN requested copies of each paper that was presented, and have posted many of them online. Visit the Kubatanablog about the meeting for links to many of these papers and the conference recommendations.

Visit the fact sheet

Audio File

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