Zimbabwe: ZEC Has Big Trust Issues to Deal With

opinion

"Trust is earned when actions meet words." -- Chris Butler.

Two weeks ago, my article on vote buying torched a storm and I got a lot of feedback from readers.

Some were in praise but others were raising alternative arguments. I value both and let us keep discussing to ensure that Zimbabwe's democratic process is improved. This week, we touch on another crucial topic: How Zimbabweans view the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) and whether it is a trusted institution that citizens believe can deliver a free, fair and credible election.

The discussion will also touch on the Electoral Integrity Africa Report which included Zimbabwe's 2013 elections in its analysis. The article will follow this pattern: Firstly, I will give a brief background and location of Zec within the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

Secondly, I will summarise the approach of the Electoral Integrity Africa Report in relation to findings relevant to Zimbabwe. Thirdly, I will conduct a cross tabulation analysis where I compare citizens' trust of Zec on one hand and on the other, their perceptions on six aspects of the electoral process as reported in the post-2013 Elections Afro Barometer Survey. The overarching theme of the article is that Zec has big trust issues and the commission has to work hard to reverse this challenge in order to be the ideal midwife of a credible electoral outcome.

Zec and need for probity

The electoral commission is by design a referee of political contests in Zimbabwe. In order to achieve this onerous task, the framers of the constitution ensured that Zec finds pride of place in the national charter. Chapter 12 (Sections 238 to 241) details the nomenclature and responsibilities of the commission.

I make this point of constitutional location of Zec powers because it is indeed an important pivot for the commission to divest itself of any imagined political patronage if it has to succeed in engendering trust in its operations.

Section 239(a) enjoins Zec to prepare for, conduct and supervise different elections in Zimbabwe and ensure that those elections are conducted efficiently, freely, fairly, transparently and in accordance with the law. Subsections (j) and (k) provide the commission with key powers of giving instructions to persons in the employment of the state or of a local authority for the furtherance of their mandate as well as receiving and considering complaints from the public and to take action with regard to the complaints as it considers appropriate. In reviewing these powers and responsibilities one is left with no doubt that the Zec has constitutional protection to act as the independent arbiter or facilitator of truly democratic political contests. They cannot and should not hold onto the coattails of political players because the law provides them with this leeway. The Electoral Act that they administer flows from these generous constitutional provisions.

Poor electoral integrity

The Electoral Integrity Project (EIP) included the 2013 Zimbabwe elections in its analysis and on their 100-point scale Perception of Electoral Integrity Index (PEI), Zimbabwe managed to score only 48, which is far below the highest performer in Africa, Ghana at 84 as well as the African and global average of 59 and 64 respectively.

Having said this, it is important to highlight the source and process of the EIP assessment to strengthen its credibility in the mind of the reader. The EIP is an independent, non-profit, scholarly research project based at the Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the University of Sydney's Department of Government and International Relations. Its director is Professor Pippa Norris, one of the leading scholars in the political science field with over 54 000 citations and fourth ranked most cited scholar in the field worldwide.

She previously served as director of the Democratic Governance Group at the United Nations Development Programme in New York (the UNDP is currently the biggest technical capacity building partner to Zec). Their idea of measuring electoral integrity stems from international standards and global norms governing the conduct of elections and these are drawn from inter alia the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The PEI index (where Zimbabwe scored 48) was developed through adding 49 variables and standardising them and these were then practically condensed into 10 components to cover counting, results, procedures, party registration, electoral authorities, laws, voting, media, voter registration and finance. About 40 domestic and international experts were consulted and their definition of an expert entailed a "political scientist or other social scientist in a related field who has demonstrated knowledge of the electoral process in a particular country such as through publications, memberships of a relevant research group or network, or university employment". This poor ranking that is empirically determined should provide the necessary impetus for Zec and the authorities to create tangible targets to ensure the next polls get above the Africa average of 59.

Zec and its trust issues

The intuitive disposition is to think that it is logical for those who perceive some aspects of the electoral process to be fair to trust Zec more. Bizarrely, in this brief analysis of Afro-Barometer survey data collected after the 2013 elections, there are counter intuitive findings which point to an unexplained trust deficit in Zec.

I will split the analysis into two categories. The first dealing with matters that are largely administrative and the second focussing on political aspects. The administrative category has three aspects which include: citizens' opinion on whether counting is conducted fairly, opposition candidates are prevented from running and fair media coverage accorded to all candidates/parties.

A total of 95% of respondents who said that counting is never fair also said they do not fully trust Zec. Interestingly, close to half (46%) of the respondents who said counting is always done fairly do not fully trust Zec. This high number of people who allege good practice but still do not trust the commission is the first we will encounter in this analysis.

When respondents were asked their opinion on whether opposition candidates are prevented from running, 56% of those who said the opposition is never prevented also said they do not fully trust

According to the analysis, 88% of those who said sometimes the opposition is prevented also said they do not fully trust Zec.

This pattern carries over when analysing the responses regarding fair access to media by all parties. A total of 71% of those who said media coverage is fair also said they do not trust Zec. A large chunk (42%) of those who said media coverage is always fair report that they do not fully trust the commission.

The second category deals with political aspects of the electoral cycle that includes vote buying, genuine candidates and threats to voters. The headline findings in the vote buying responses, is that 55% of those who feel that voters are never bribed also report not fully trusting the commission. When respondents were asked whether voters are presented with genuine choices during the election, 81% of those who said often voters are presented with genuine choices still reported not fully trusting the commission.

When asked whether voters are threatened, 61% of those who said voters are never threatened reported not fully trusting the commission with 78% of those who said sometimes voters are threatened also reporting not fully trusting the commission. One of the most fundamental findings in this analysis is that those who responded "I don't know" in each of the six aspects discussed above, on average, 70% of them reported not fully trusting the commission.

Conclusion

President Emerson Mnangagwa has repeatedly said the 2018 elections will be held in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner and intimated the inviting of international observers to witness the polls. This is a very important step and it has to be met with three specific actions for the outcome to be truly credible.

Firstly, the commission has to work extra hard to build citizen trust in its operations; it should not just carry out its duties in a manner that they think engenders trust but should be perceived to be doing so by the citizens. So, first recommendation: perception of Zec impartiality and professionalism matters. Secondly, Zec should invest in a scientific way of doing things.

The EIP's PEI Index can be localised so as to create an empirical framework to judge the extent to which the management of the elections has progressed. This means that: Science matters.

Thirdly and finally, involving stakeholders beyond the stakeholder fora and extending the use of tools such as the ERM risk assessment software developed by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (Idea). International good practice matters. For ZEC to improve its trust levels and play its political referee role effectively as provided for in the country's charter it needs to begin in earnest to amplify activities that boost its standing within the populace, integrate research as an ongoing feedback mechanism and benchmark practices on international good examples. They may think they are doing all this but the experts at EIP do not agree and, most importantly, their clients, as exemplified through the Afro-Barometer survey sample, also vehemently disagree!

Batsani Ncube is a Chevening Scholar reading elections, campaigns and democracy at the Democracy and Elections Research Centre, Royal Holloway, University of London. -- ibncube@gmail.com

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