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Electoral Bill fails to meet benchmarks
November 25, 2004
step forward, but provisions need to meet SADC standards
New York - The
Zimbabwean government's draft bill to establish an electoral
commission is a step forward, but lacks key provisions that would
ensure this body's independence and impartiality during general
elections in March, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper
released today. The bill is currently being debated in parliament.
The briefing paper details how the Zimbabwe
Electoral Commission Bill contains provisions that fall short
of the benchmarks for democratic elections recently agreed by the
Southern African Development Community (SADC), of which Zimbabwe
is a member state.
"Zimbabwe's move to establish an electoral commission
is a step in the right direction," said Peter Takirambudde,
executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division.
"But this bill fails to provide the protections needed to
ensure a level playing field for next year's general elections."
The SADC Principles
and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, approved at the
organization's summit in August, mandate principles for the
conduct of democratic elections, the responsibilities of the member
states and the procedures for electoral observation missions. At
the summit the prime minister of Mauritius and the new chairman
of SADC, Paul Bérenger, emphasized the significance of Zimbabwe's
upcoming election, saying: "With free and fair elections in
Zimbabwe at the beginning of next year, we can already start preparing
for the normalization of relations between SADC, the European Union
and the U.S."
Human Rights Watch detailed how the bill's provisions impede
the creation of a fully independent and impartial electoral authority,
as mandated in the SADC Principles, in at least four key ways. First,
the method of appointing electoral commissioners does not provide
for the sufficient inclusion of various political parties. Second,
the bill does not adequately restrict high-ranking political party
officeholders from being appointed as Commissioners. Third, the
bill provides numerous opportunities for ministerial intervention
in the work of the Commission. Fourth, the establishment of the
Commission solely through an ordinary statute makes it vulnerable
Zimbabwe's previous general election in June 2000 and its
presidential election in March 2002 ended in sharp acrimony with
controversy over process and the fairness of the results. In this
heated and politically polarized environment, an independent and
impartial electoral commission could help build voter confidence
in the conduct of the upcoming election, Human Rights Watch said.
However, the electoral commission bill as currently drafted is flawed
and should be withdrawn and appropriately revised. The Zimbabwean
government should revise the bill to ensure that the electoral commission
is independent, impartial and operates in compliance with SADC trends,
Human Rights Watch said. Individuals and groups outside the presidency
and the ruling party should be more fully involved in the appointment
process. The eligibility criteria for commissioners should include
restrictions on the appointment of high-ranking political party
officials. Ministerial interventions in the operations of the commission
should be removed and the commission should be made responsible
only to Parliament. Finally, a constitutionally mandated independent
and impartial Electoral Commission would firmly establish these
principles and the institution itself.
Moreover, the bill's provisions governing voter education
infringe on SADC Principles and Guidelines. These provisions give
the Commission far-reaching powers over voter education. They also
violate the Zimbabwean constitution by infringing on its guarantees
of freedom of information and association. The bill also bars all
foreign support for voter education activities except through the
Under the bill, the Commission would be empowered to require anyone,
other than a political party, providing voter education to furnish
it detailed information, including funding sources. Failure to comply
would constitute a criminal offence, liable to a fine or to up to
two years of imprisonment.
"The draft bill's voter education provisions criminalize
failure to comply with even basic requirements," said Takirambudde.
"Such stipulations could seriously restrict freedom of information
for both organizations and individuals."
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