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Zimbabwe: Electoral Bill fails to meet benchmarks
Human Rights Watch
November 25, 2004

Bill a 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 to repeal.

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 Electoral Commission.

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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