Maputo — The Mozambican parliament, the Assembly of the Republic, on Thursday altered the electoral legislation to cut the period for presenting candidates for the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 15 October from 120 to 75 days.
The reason given for this shortening of the electoral timetable was the postponement of voter registration. Under the original timetable, registration should have begun on 1 April and ended on 15 May.
But the devastation in the central provinces of Sofala, Manica, Tete and Zambezia, caused by cyclone Idai, was such that the government decided to postpone the registration by a fortnight. It will now run from 15 April to 30 May.
The voter registration has been postponed by 15 days - but the period for presenting candidates has been cut by 45 days. Nonetheless, this proposal was adopted by consensus among the three parties represented in the Assembly - the ruling Frelimo Paty, the former rebel movement Renamo and the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM).
Presenting candidates is not a simple matter - each candidate must be supported by 10,000 registered voters, all duly identified. The three main parties have the resources to collect these signatures, but minor parties found the task impossible, even when they had 120 days to collect them. The signatures are presented to the Constitutional Council, the country's highest body in matters of constitutional and electoral law, which checks their validity.
Presidential candidates must also present proof that they are registered voters above the age of 35 and have a clean criminal record, plus a declaration that they are willing and eligible to stand.
Parliamentary candidates can only be presented by political parties or coalitions of parties. Each party must present a full slate of candidates for each of the provincial constituencies it plans to contest. This means it must present enough candidates to fill all the seats available for that constituency, plus at least three supplementary candidates. If a party does not present enough candidates, its entire list for that constituency is rejected.
Each parliamentary candidate must present an authenticated copy of his or her identity card, and voter card, and a criminal record declaration. No candidate can stand on more than one provincial list.
Past experience suggests that Frelimo, Renamo and the MDM can meet these conditions, but that minor parties may find them difficult.
The period granted to the National Elections Commission (CNE) to announce the distribution of seats among the provincial constituencies has also been reduced - from 180 to 105 days. Seats are distributed in proportion to the number of registered voters in each province, and that can only be known after the end of the voter registration.
The amended legislation also makes it easier for parties or candidates to protest against alleged irregularities or fraud. Parties can appeal to district courts without proving that they made any "prior objection" at the polling station.
It was the demand for proof of "prior objection" that sank most of the appeals against irregularities in last year's municipal elections. The district courts threw out appeals when parties could not show that they had protested against irregularities at the polling stations. This was often because dishonest polling station staff refused to accept appeals, although this was part of their responsibilities.
This change brings the law on presidential and parliamentary elections into line with the law on electing provincial assemblies, where the demand for "prior objection" had already been dropped. Since all three elections will take place on the same day, it would make little sense to have different appeals procedures for them.
On the basis of these amendments, all appeals will be heard first by a district or city court. Parties or candidates can appeal against the court decision to the Constitutional Council.
A further welcome change is that the election agents of the parties can no longer be excluded from any stage of the vote counting and tabulation. One of the scandals of the municipal elections was that some of the meetings during the count were held almost clandestinely, and agents of the opposition parties were not informed - and so were unable to protest at irregularities in good time.
Altering this anomaly took a one word change in the law. Previously the law said party agents "may" ("podem", in Portuguese) attend the district count. That has been changed to the much stronger "should" (the Portuguese word "devem") attend the count.
Discretion in distributing results sheets ("editais") from the count has now been abolished. The amendments say that all election agents, polling station staff, observers and journalists are entitled to copies of the editais.
Meanwhile, the chairperson of the CNE, Abdul Carimo, has expressed concern at the conditions facing voter registration brigades, despite the 15 day postponement. Cited in Friday's issue of the independent newssheet "Mediafax", he admitted that the conditions "are difficult".
Many of the places where registration brigades were placed for past elections (mostly schools) were destroyed by the cyclone or are still under water. Some people displaced by the disaster have returned to their home areas, but many have not, and are still in government accommodation centres.
The CNE and its executive body, the Electoral Administration Technical Secretariat (STAE), are mapping the real situation in the central provinces, finding out where the potential voters are living - either temporarily or definitively.
"We are on the ground, surveying the alternatives", said Carimo. The challenge was to ensure that everybody entitled to vote is registered.
Speaking to reporters after the start of a training session for election staff, he admitted that it might not be possible to start the registration everywhere on 15 April, but even if there was a delay of a few days "we must undertake registration in these areas".
He said distribution of the registration kits is under way, and he expected the registration to start on time in most places.