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  • Zimbabwe's Elections 2013 - Index of Articles

  • Hot Seat transcript: Irene Petras the director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
    Violet Gonda, SW Radio Africa

    July 20, 2013

    Gonda: My guest on the Hot Seat programme is Irene Petras the director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the vice-chairperson of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network. Welcome Irene.

    Petras: Thank you very much Violet.

    Gonda: What do you make of the electoral process so far?

    Petras: Well I think that there’s obviously been a lot of problems with the special voting process, even the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission itself on the first evening of the special voting, raised a number of issues of concern. Those didn’t seem to have been addressed over the next 24 hours and beyond and we did receive a lot of information about confusion and a lot of disorder in the way the electoral process was being carried out all around the country, so I think there are a lot of question marks about how the special voting took place and even now people are not really sure about the outcome and what exactly has happened with that special voting process.

    Gonda: In most places there were no materials for voting and polling stations did not open early. Was all this unforeseen – this chaos? Or is it all deliberate?

    Petras: I think to some extent ZEC underestimated the nature of the exercise and they didn’t put in place enough mechanisms to ensure that they would be ready for this special voting, although in terms of the law they are required to make sure that they are ready on the first day of the vote before the polling stations open so right from the beginning there was a contravention of the Electoral Act through those processes. I think that they didn’t realize how complicated the system was going to be especially with people voting for, in most cases, three different candidates – the presidential, the parliamentary and then the local government candidates as well. But because of the lack of adequate information made available to political parties, to accredited observers and the public in general and even those who were supposed to be voting themselves – a lot of question marks are being raised as to whether or not it was just inability for them to be organized in time or whether there was something a bit more suspicious about the whole exercise.

    Gonda: And special voting was only supposed to take two days and that was on Sunday and Monday but I understand that some of the polling stations closed on Tuesday instead of ending on Monday. What did you make of that?

    Petras: Yes we did receive reports from different polling stations around the country that they had not closed on time. I myself even witnessed police still milling around outside Mount Pleasant Hall in Harare and also Town House. Obviously there was a lot of chaos and a lot of people who still hadn’t voted so we couldn’t even get close to the entrance of the polling station in some of the cases. There’s a lot of confusion about it and I think the fact that ZEC itself didn’t come out today and make any statements, clarify what was happening, raised a lot of concerns.

    Gonda: And ZEC, by law, should have made an announcement especially about the extension – isn’t that what is required by law?

    Petras: When they issued the notice for the special voting, they had indicated the times for which the polling stations were supposed to be open: they were supposed to be open from seven in the morning until seven at night. We did hear some unconfirmed reports that they had then directed that the polling stations should remain open, in some cases we heard that is was up until 12 midnight on Monday. In other cases we also heard, but again unconfirmed, that they had made a directive that from the time polling stations started to receive ballot papers they should remain open 12 hours from that point. But again because they haven’t come out clearly and indicated what has happened I think that we’re bound by the notice that they gave in terms of the law and they need to justify any extension that was given.

    Gonda: So the fact that ZEC has not come out clearly to say what is happening or even if they extended the special vote, what does this mean in terms of transparency?

    Petras: Well obviously it raises concerns. I think that in any electoral process people deserve to know what is happening. Obviously this is an election people have been anticipating for a long time, there has not been a lot of public confidence in previous elections and we would have hoped that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission would have put in place systems to ensure that public confidence would be there, that people would know what processes were going on, what exactly was unfolding as the days progressed. Unfortunately that was not done and I think that’s why a lot of questions are being raised now.

    Gonda: What about in terms of abiding to the provisions of the Electoral Act if days were extended, what does that mean in terms of the law?

    Petras: I think that will be something that would have to be argued legally in the courts, I wouldn’t be able to comment on that right now. I think first we need to hear from ZEC what exactly has happened in terms of which law or procedures or regulations they were acting and then it will be a bit easier to see what happens moving forward.

    Gonda: I understand that quite a number of officers were turned away even though their applications to vote had been approved so would they be allowed to participate in the general elections since they failed to vote in this first round?

    Petras: Well again that’s questionable because the Electoral Act indicates that those who have been approved to vote by special vote will not be able to cast a vote on the 31st of July but again we have to wait and see what has happened, how many people are affected. We don’t even have an indication of the numbers of people who were able to cast their votes around the country yet so I think we have to wait for that information and see but as the law stands at the moment, those who were approved for the special vote should not be able to vote on the 31st.

    Gonda: So ZEC has not made available statistics of those who voted and those who were turned away?

    Petras: Not publicly to my knowledge, we only heard from ZEC on the evening of the first day of voting. At that briefing we were just told how many ballot papers had been sent to different polling stations in the different provinces but no indications of how many people had voted. They have undertaken to provide that information in due course but we haven’t received that formally from the Commission.

    Gonda: And what does the Electoral Act say if a person’s application was approved and then they failed to vote because they were turned away because the polling station closed early or there were no voting materials – will they be allowed though to participate in the elections even though it was not their fault that they failed to vote during the special voting process?

    Petras: Well unfortunately I don’t think when the laws were drafted, they anticipated this kind of a situation so the law is silent on that. All it says is that those who have been approved will vote on days of special voting and not on the day when the rest of the country will vote. So again I think we will have to wait and see what exactly has happened and how in terms of the law, ZEC is going to proceed if they do want to deal with the issue of people who weren’t able to cast their votes because of the confusion.

    Gonda: What mechanisms are there to make sure there’s no double voting?

    Petras: The normal electoral processes are there so those who would have voted on the days of special voting have received the indelible ink on their fingers and also the Electoral Commission is required to cross out the names of all the people who have been approved for the special vote on the national voters roll, so by the time we come to the 31st of July, if you go to a specific ward, all the polling stations in that ward should have the name of that person who has voted during the special vote, crossed out and marked with an SV to indicate that they were part of the special voting procedure. So essentially if somebody were to go on the 31st of July and try and vote, then their name would already have been crossed out on the voters roll.

    Gonda: And is this an electronic voters roll? By this I’m asking how will people know that the same people didn’t go to another polling station?

    Petras: Well those questions have been raised with ZEC and they have assured those who have asked the questions that they are going to cancel out those votes on the hard copies. I’m not exactly sure how they’re going to do it on the electronic roll but usually when we go to the polls there’s a hard copy of the voters roll at each polling station so at each polling station in a particular ward, that name should be crossed out. So the measures that are put in place is that people are supposed to have access to the list of people who are approved for this special vote and they should then be able to look at that and then look at the overall voters roll and make sure that the names have been cancelled out on that main role.

    Gonda: Some reports say that the process was tiring for observers who at times had to spend 24 hours without a break at some polling stations. What challenges did you have to face as monitoring groups?

    Petras: Some of the polling stations which I visited, the electoral agents weren’t present at the polling station and the challenge now came for the observers because there’s a limit to the number of observers who can be in any polling station at any particular time so that restricted the numbers of observers who could actually be inside the polling station. But the main issue is that everybody should ensure that enough people are accredited so that they can even take shifts to be able to observe what is happening and to keep up with the process on a regular basis. Obviously because of the challenges over the two days of the special votes, maybe people were not ready for that but there should be a system in place to ensure that at all times there are people who in the polling station and they can be relieved so that there’s a continuous observation of that process and what’s going on.

    Gonda: And so generally what lessons have you learned as monitoring groups?

    Petras: We’ve been observing through the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, elections for many years now and I think that the observers are well trained, they’ve been through the processes before and they do a very good job. Most of the presiding officers, the polling officers who come from the Electoral Commission have also been trained and they’ve been doing the work for a long time so there’s usually cooperation during the process. I think there just needs to be continued cooperation, communication and access to information which is required about different stages of the electoral process. This puts people at ease, it reduces tension, it increases public confidence and it makes sure that the moment that you have information about what is happening, it just calms people down and makes them understand the electoral process. I think one of the challenges that we’ve had in the lead up to this election is the inability for a very comprehensive voter education process. Civil society organizations have not been able to carry out voter education, very few organizations were accredited to carry out that kind of education and ZEC itself only was able to roll out a programme through their voter educators very late. So I don’t think there’s a lot of information, we also don’t get a lot of concise, precise and accurate information from the media about how these processes are supposed to work so hopefully from now until the 31st of July I would hope that there would be an increase in advising people, educating them about what the process requires, what is happening, what they need to bring with them when they go to vote – all of those things will be done so that people will be well aware of what is happening and that will reduce incidents of possible problems at polling stations on the 31st of July.

    Gonda: In terms of monitors, because ZESN and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, as you said, you’ve been doing this for many years but can you just briefly describe to us what exactly does your work entail?

    Petras: In terms of the law there’s a maximum of six observers who can go into a polling station at any time so obviously the observers need to be spread out to make sure that they cover as many polling stations as possible and there’s also the issues of international observers, regional observers, there’s quite a contingent of observers from the SADC Election Observation Mission and many others around. So the numbers are restricted but basically the observers are trained just to be able to watch how the process unfolds, to see whether the materials are available or whether that particular polling station is ready to have elections, the secrecy of the ballot is protected and obviously just to see how many people are coming in, how many are voting and how many are turned away so it’s really a general observation of the entire process and then they will obviously continue with looking at how the counting process goes, how the results are posted outside polling stations, how they are transmitted up the chain up to the national centre and eventually the announcement of the results.

    Gonda: In the last election some observer teams especially from the region were criticized for failing to report thoroughly on the process. How confident are you that they will get it right this time round?

    Petras: Well I think it really depends on how thorough the particular election observation mission is. Obviously with organizations that have been working on elections for a long time, we make sure that the evidence we have or the information that we have is verified before it goes out so that it is reliable. I did attend the launch of the SADC Election Observation Mission yesterday and I have to say that I felt confidence from the head of the Mission that they understand how critical this election is, the importance of making sure that they oversee everything that is happening and that they get information from a range of different stake holders and that they ensure that voters are able to cast their ballot freely and secretly and also that the process will ensure that the will of the people at the end of the day is respected. So I think as long as there’s engagement, interaction, information is shared with those observation missions, then I remain hopeful that they understand the seriousness of this election as any election really is and that we’ll see a positive outcome just from having the observers on the ground.

    Gonda: Some say ZEC should release the official special voting list which is supposed to be open for scrutiny to the public – will you demand this as monitors?

    Petras: It has already been requested and as you say, in terms of the law, people are supposed to have access to that. The chairperson of the Commission had undertaken that the list would be available, we haven’t had access to that list yet, I’m not sure about the political parties but obviously we will continue to request that we see that list because I think that it’s an important part of making sure that that process is seen to be transparent and people can ensure that their worries about double voting and that kind of thing can be allayed if there’s enough information for people to work with.

    Gonda: With what you have seen so far, will ZEC be able to conduct credible elections at the end of this month?

    Petras: Well I think that obviously they have underestimated the process of the special vote and the manner in which it has been conducted thus far has raised some serious concerns and some legitimate concerns about their ability to be able to carry out a proper process on the 31st of July. I do believe that there are some people within the Commission who want to ensure that the process goes well but I also believe that there are others who may not be as willing to ensure that there’s the transparency and the accountability and the professionalism that’s there. Civil society for a long time has been calling for reforms to be taken both in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and also the Registrar General’s Office particularly when it comes to issues around the voters roll, voter registration and that kind of thing and the way that the last three days have unfolded somehow highlights the need for those reforms to take place. I hope that it won’t be too late but a lot of it will depend on how ZEC proceeds from here, how willing they are to ensure that different mechanisms are put in place to strengthen the process and how willing they are to share information which legitimately people are asking for about what has happened over the last three days.

    Gonda: Thank you very much Irene Petras for talking to us on the programme Hot Seat.

    Petras: Thanks so much Violet.

    SW Radio Africa is Zimbabwe's Independent Voice and broadcasts on Short Wave 4880 KHz in the 60m band.

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