Cape Town — The dispute over the fairness of Zimbabwe's election last week appears headed for the next summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) after Botswana called the credibility of polling into question.
The Botswana government, long a critic of the standards of governance practised by President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party, issued a statement on Monday saying that the findings of its 80-strong observer team suggested that "an acceptable standard for free and fair elections" had not been met.
The Botswana statement focused on problems around the voters' roll, the forms of identification needed to vote and what it called "credible allegations" of people being denied the right to vote - issues similar to those raised by the official observer missions of SADC and the African Union.
Although the SADC observers' preliminary statement called on all political parties "to respect and accept the election results" when announced by Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the head of the mission, Tanzanian foreign minister Bernard Membe, was at pains to point out at a news conference that "we did not say it was fair."
He added: "The question of fairness is broad and you cannot just say it within one day. And so be sure that within 30 days, [in] our main report, the question of fairness may come. But we didn't like to jump to conclusions at this point in time."
The government of Botswana said in its statement that while "the election day itself was free of overt intimidation and violence... various incidents and circumstances were revealed that call into question whether the entire electoral process, and thus its final result, can be recognised as having been fair, transparent and credible...
"That is why the [SADC observer mission] described the elections as 'free and peaceful' as opposed to 'free and fair,' the latter being the criteria for credible elections."
Botswana called for an independent audit of the process and said it hoped the issue would be placed on the agenda of the forthcoming summit of SADC heads of state and government in Lilongwe, Malawi.
Although the SADC statement simply outlined contested issues, with the electoral commission's responses, the African Union's preliminary assessment pointedly referred to "shortcomings" in the process.
It said the voters' roll was made publicly available only two days before the election, "rather late for meaningful inspection and verification by voters, parties and candidates..."
It added that "observers have found no evidence that hard copies were generally available to all who required them and who by law should have them.
"Related to this, the mission notes serious concerns raised by some stakeholders regarding the duplication and omission of voter names, which must not be allowed, casting doubts on the possible outcomes of the elections.
"The concerns about the voters roll are critical in determining the degree of disenfranchisement or disqualification of legitimate voters from voting."
The AU mission also noted that the printing of 8.7 million ballot papers, 35 percent more than the number of registered voters, was "significantly higher than international best practices," which allowed for the printing of five to 10 percent more ballot papers than voters.
It also said it was concerned at "the high incidence of voters who were turned away at polling stations" and noted the "high number" of voters who were helped by official at many polling stations.
"While the current electoral laws provide for assistance by presiding officers, electoral officers and police officers, the involvement of such officials may influence or restrict the free will of the assisted voter," it reported.
The African Union also accused the Zimbabwean media of being "highly polarised along party lines and generally biased in their reporting, in clear violation of the... Electoral Act.
"The state broadcaster could have provided a balanced platform for all competing parties and alternative voices in accordance with Article 17(3) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance."