31 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Voter Education Turning Into a Political Minefield

Civil society organisations are only speculating over the reasons behind their prohibition from conducting voter education as well as assisting the public in voter registration, Njabulo Ncube notes.

AS Zimbabwe trudges towards harmonised elections probably in June this year, voter education and registration is increasingly turning into a political minefield for the country's small but vibrant civil society organisations.

On January 14, police arrested Okay Machisa, the director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights (ZimRights) and subsequently charged him with contravening Section 31, 136 and 137 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act for allegedly attempting to defraud the Registrar General (RG)'s Office by forging and manufacturing counterfeit copies of certificates of voter registration.

The State has also linked the offence to charges faced by Leo Chamahwinya, ZimRights' education programmes manager who was arrested on December 31, 2012 along with Dorcas Shereni, ZimRights Highfields' Local Chapter chairperson and Farai Bhani and Tatenda Chinaka.

Machisa has been denied bail. In denying him bail, Magistrate Tendai Mahwe based his decision mainly on three reasons; firstly that the case was a matter of national interest since the nature of the alleged offence was meant to discredit a national institution, that is the RG's Office; secondly that the investigations were complex hence the State needed more time to carry out a thorough investigation throughout all the ZimRights branches across the country and lastly that the co-accused, Chamahwinya, had been remanded in custody hence there was no basis to remand Machisa out of custody.

The magistrate added that the public would lose confidence in the justice system if Machisa was granted bail.

Mahwe, however, did not refer to legal arguments to the contrary submitted by Machisa's lawyer; Beatrice Mtetwa in what she said was a clearly motivated political judgment.

Machisa is also the chairperson of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a civil society organisation.

Critics of the ZANU-PF side of government are adamant that the latest arrest and detention of ZimRights officials gave credence to assertions that the State was clamping down on non-state players ahead of polls to be held this year.

Phillian Zamchiya, the regional coordinator of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, says the arrests were designed to stifle as well as scare civil society ahead of polls.

"We condemn this calculated assault on activists meant to cow civil society organisations that are fighting for democratic reforms before the next watershed election. We reiterate our position that the political environment in Zimbabwe is not yet conducive for a free and fair election," says Zamchiya.

"We appeal for solidarity action, regional and international pressure on the Zimbabwe state to respect the rule of law. Such action is important to mitigate against a possible surge in the harassment and detention of activists especially as we head towards the general election," he said.

In terms of the amended Electoral Act, voter education is now the preserve of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). The law also states that ZEC approves who could conduct voter education and what materials can be used for such a process.

Tawanda Chimhini, the director of the Election Resource Centre (ERC), says regulating organisations interested in conducting voter education was an international practice as it allows for regularisation of voter education and guards against deliberate misinformation.

The law also allows political parties to conduct voter education which, again, is the international practise.

Chimhini says the provisions regarding voter education can be a cause for concern especially when the capacity of ZEC becomes questionable in terms of finding resources to comprehensively conduct adequate voter education.

"ZEC is incapacitated hence the persistent calls to open up voter education to other players," he says.

Regarding voter registration, the Electoral Act subordinates the role of the Registrar of Voters to ZEC.

But Chimhini says that challenges that emerge from this provision relate to the issues around accountability and transparency. He says there are concerns over the voters' roll itself and the limited access to it.

"Given difficulties encountered in the past in accessing the roll and the criminalisation of any assessment of this critical document, there is limited confidence that the current provisions as per law, guard against possible electoral manipulation," he adds.

Civil society organisations are only speculating over the reasons behind their prohibition from conducting voter education as well as assisting the public in voter registration.

Critics say it may be logical and strategic for ZANU-PF to prevent another defeat at the looming polls, hence the preoccupation with closing space available for civic players in voter education.

Chimhini said elections have become a minefield in Zimbabwe.

While it had been hoped that the formation of the inclusive government would bring sanity in the manner in which various election stakeholders engage with each other and the election process, Zimbabweans have witnessed clear indications over the past six months that elections were indeed the preserve of ZEC, the RG's Office and political parties.

Any attempt by civic society groups to interrogate electoral processes, to access election information or to even engage with the voter has been met with severe intimidation ranging from police raids to interrogation and prolonged incarceration with very limited chances of getting bail.

This effectively means that participation in any electoral activity by civic society groupings has been criminalised and the role of the voter has been reduced to merely casting their vote, no questions asked, and even that role is not guaranteed.

Despite draconian measures to close democratic space, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as ERC continue to seek platforms for engagement with ZEC to register young people to vote.

ERC has been using various platforms such as X1G radio show on Star FM to raise awareness around the importance of voter registration ahead of the pending mobile voter registration exercise.

The organisation is also on facebook and twitter using new media to interact with young people on registration and other election issues.

Trevor Maisiri, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, says while voter registration should be the mandate of ZEC, voter education should be carried out by civil society and NGOs.He said ZEC's responsibility is that of training and disseminating election information to civil society organisations and NGOs so that sufficient and accurate information is given to voters.

Both voter registration and education have become highly political and contested processes due to the political tensions and suspicions prevalent in Zimbabwe where civil society organisations have on many occasions been labelled "regime change" agents by ZANU-PF.

"Civil society organisations and NGOs have also, in many cases, given the long history of political challenges in Zimbabwe; alleged poor governance by ZANU-PF. This long history of friction is what has finally culminated in the friction and contestation in these processes," said Maisiri.

While ZEC has the sole responsibility for voter education under the amended Electoral Act, civil society and other actors can only engage in voter education with express permit from the commission through a registration exercise.

According to Tapera Kapuya, a political analyst, ZANU-PF's fears seem to be its perception that most NGOs were an extension of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and therefore giving them an express remit to engage in voter education might be manipulated to advantage the MDC.

"Ordinarily, any citizen should be able to educate another on voting and electoral process. Attempts to limit electoral participation to mere voting are an affront to democracy. Voter education is so critical in citizens' electoral participation to be so regulated. The implications of the current law is that it is illegal for any person to talk to another about how, why or where to vote," said Kapuya.

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