The Anatomy of Electoral Reforms: Why the MDC must free itself from the “No Elections without Reforms” Box

The Anatomy of Electoral Reforms

Alex T. Magaisa

One afternoon of 5th July 2013, the MDC-T wrote a letter to the head of the ZBC, the national broadcaster, inviting them to the launch of the party’s election manifesto scheduled for 7th July 2013, at Rudhaka Stadium in Marondera. Zanu PF’s presidential candidate, Robert Mugabe, had just launched his party’s election manifesto on the same day and the event had been given live coverage by the ZBC. We believed that it would only be fair for the ZBC to provide the same facility to the MDC-T.

We did not expect the ZBC to respond positively to our request for live coverage because we knew of their entrenched bias against the MDC. But we wrote to them anyway, because it was necessary to demonstrate that we had made the effort but that they were, indeed biased and would not offer us equal opportunities. It was important to demonstrate their failure and/or refusal to comply with the electoral laws. This evidence would later be placed before the courts and election observers if need be, as evidence of unfair and unequal treatment in contravention of the electoral laws.

The ZBC duly responded to the invitation. They could provide live coverage of the MDC launch of its election manifesto. But there was an impossible condition. Attached to the letter was an invoice for the service. It would cost the MDC a cool $165,000 to cover the event, they wrote! This was a ridiculous sum of money given the prevailing economic conditions. We knew Zanu PF had not been asked to pay for their election manifesto launch and that they had not in fact paid a cent for live coverage of their event. No-one, not even Zanu PF with all its resources would afford to pay that kind of money. This was blatantly unfair.

“Thank you for responding to our invitation”, we wrote back to the ZBC, “however, your invoice quoted for US$165 000 as coverage fee is in our opinion not competitive and grossly unfair given that as a State broadcaster, the constitution requires that you give equal and fair coverage to all political players at this time of election campaigning”.

“We do not believe that we are being treated fairly and equally with other players, in particular, Zanu-PF as required by the constitution. We are aware that Zanu-PF did not pay for the coverage of their campaign launch at Zimbabwe Grounds on Friday 5 July 2013”. This was our letter to the ZBC, protesting against their ridiculous and impossible quote.

The ZBC did not respond. We went ahead and launched the manifesto. The ZBC was there but not for live coverage, as they had done for the Zanu PF event. We watched the news later that evening. They devoted a couple of minutes if not less to the MDC election manifesto launch and spend much of the time talking about Mugabe’s speech at his party’s manifesto launch two days earlier. This would be the pattern for the rest of the campaign period. Zanu PF had the lion’s share of coverage and the MDC had the baboon’s share. And when they covered the MDC, it was in the most negative terms.

We wrote to ZEC and quoted all the various provisions of the constitution and the electoral law which require fair and equal treatment by the state media and pointed out that this was clearly being breached by the national broadcaster. In the case of the manifesto launch, the ZBC had not directly refused to provide live coverage, but they had set an impossible condition which we knew they had not set for our competitor. The effect of their condition was effectively to refuse to provide live coverage of the event.

This was just one instance indicating the unfair and unequal electoral environment which was tilted in favour of Zanu PF and against its competitors. For years, the MDC-T had tried to get media reforms as part of the broader package of electoral reforms. The constitution and the law were clear – there were requirements on the state media to be fair and impartial and to give all electoral parties equal opportunities in its coverage. These measures, which still exist in the laws, were blatantly breached. ZEC did nothing about it, even though complaints were submitted.

The point I am making here is that the problem is not in the absence of laws requiring fairness and equal opportunities in media coverage of political actors in election campaigns. The problem is simply in the lack of implementation of these rules, motivated by self-interest and facilitated by the absence of consequences for non-compliance.

When therefore, the MDC-T and other opposition parties talk about electoral reforms, they must bear in mind that this is not merely about reforming the laws but more importantly, about reforming the behaviour, attitude and conduct of those who are charged with operationalising these systems.

Knowing the site of reforms is necessary because it helps to inform the strategies that can be adopted to advocate for and influence those reforms. It also helps to appreciate the complexity of the ‘electoral reforms’ which they have demanded as necessary before they can participate in any future elections. The question being, what is currently being done to achieve these reforms, apart from boycotting by-elections? I am not convinced that a boycott of by-elections alone, without more, will yield anything in this regard.

Let us look at another example.

Prior to the July 31 elections, on several occasions, the MDC-T wrote to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and the Registrar-General, in his capacity as the Registrar of Voters. A number of issues were raised in the various correspondence but I will consider only two for purposes of analysing the anatomy of electoral reforms. The two are the electronic voters roll and security sector involvement in elections.

Electronic Voters Roll

The first concerned the electronic voters roll. Both the constitution and the Electoral Law are clear on the obligation of the electoral authorities to provide a “searchable and analysable” electronic voters roll. This is necessary to enable contestants to inspect and verify the authenticity and accuracy of the register that is used in voting. The voters’ roll is probably the single most critical piece of material in elections because it determines the eligibility of individuals to vote and the accuracy of voting figures. This is why the law requires that it be provided free of charge to contestants who need it.

The clear legal requirements notwithstanding, neither ZEC nor the RG could provide the electronic voters roll. The 2013 election came and went without it and this remained the case more than a year after the election. This was a clear breach of the law, which compromised the election. Once again, we see that the problem is not the absence of the law requiring the provision of the electronic voters roll but the behaviour, attitude and conduct of those that are given the power to operate the system. If they do not want to provide the electronic voters roll, they just won’t give it. At best they will concoct all sorts of excuses, even if they don’t make any sense.

The real problem is the culture of impunity – vanoita madiro aJojina, as they say back in the village, which encapsulates the notion that they do whatever they want. This, again, is because there are no direct consequences for their unlawful behaviour. The system allows it and in fact requires them to behave like that and rewards them. Zimbabweans, even if they are outraged, do nothing to prevent it or to demand their rights.

The way to judge whether or not there have been reforms in this case is not to look into the laws because the laws already require the provision of the voters roll. The way to gauge whether or not they have changed is to take part in an election and see if they will comply and if not to demand that these rights be respected and if not, one can exercise their right to pull out. That way the point is made more emphatically. It’s a tactical issue. If you stay away completely, you will never be able to gauge the progress of reforms, if any.
Securocrats and Elections

The third example relating to electoral reforms concerns the role and influence of the security establishment in elections. The opposition has complained for many years over the pervasive role and influence of the securocrats in electoral matters. On a number of occasions in the last 15 years, senior members of the military have made political statements demonstrating a clear bias towards Zanu PF and against the MDC. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential run-off election, the military were accused of running a campaign of violence against supporters of the MDC. In the 2013 elections, military personnel were said to have carried out mobilisation campaigns for Zanu PF particularly in the rural areas. All these aspects were seen as unlawful and unfair interference by the military in the election process.

But there are other, more subtle ways in which the security sector has influenced the electoral landscape. A number of senior military officers are retired into the civil service or state institutions. In some cases, serving officers are deployed in civilian institutions. Recently, we read that the Deputy Prosecutor-General, Florence Ziyambi was allegedly assaulted by senior members of the army who are currently deployed at the National Prosecuting Authority. However, the constitution prohibits serving members of the military from involvement in civilian institutions. But all this is ignored.

It has long been suspected that bodies such as ZEC and others are populated by members of the security services. This is an important phenomenon, which goes to the very heart of electoral reforms which are often spoken of only in general terms by members of the opposition. But these kind of reforms do not happen overnight, especially if you understand the genesis and evolution of this phenomenon, where military men and women are deployed into civilian structures.

Those who understand the history of Zanu PF as a military-political organisation, know how this pattern has evolved since the years of the liberation struggle. Military historians have demonstrated how during the war Zanu PF developed a system of retiring or redeploying its senior guerrillas into political/civilian roles at the rear. This practice continued in the early years of independence, as senior military personnel were deployed to civilian institutions.

Those who retired from the military over the years were also redeployed into civilian institutions. This has become more prominent and noticeable in recent years, but more because we are all paying more attention to it. The point here is that the so-called “militarisation of the state” is by no means a new phenomenon. If you ask them, they will tell you that the redeployment of former military men into civilian roles is not new or unique to Zimbabwe and that would be true.

I mention this because it is important to understand the nature of the beast and to appreciate what it means for the electoral reform agenda. The truth of the matter is that electoral reforms are not and will never be a quick-fix job. There is no magic formula by which one day the opposition will wake up and say now there have been electoral reforms, therefore we will contest in future elections. It is a very complex matter because by their very nature, some of the practices that we are grappling with as a nation are deeply ingrained in our institutions.

These reforms will take years, if not decades to achieve. It’s a system, indeed, a way of life that has been established over a long period of time. I do not see any particular change in this pattern before 2018. A few weeks ago, we saw the appointment of new diplomats to various countries. Virtually all of them were ex-military personnel being deployed and retired into civilian service. A narrow view might be that these have nothing to do with elections but that would be to miss the point. Those appointments reflect a broader picture of the role and effect of the security establishment with the state structure.

Prior to the 2013 elections, as part of the reform agenda, we spent weeks trying to get an agreement on a Code of Conduct for the security services in regard to the election. It was drafted and discussed but there was no result, until the election came and went. The draft is probably buried somewhere. I cannot see how it will be adopted now, with the opposition no longer having the little leverage they had while in government. The constitution has clear requirements on the need to protect the security establishment from politicisation. But at the same time, speaking at a political event, a Vice President of the country introduces the head of the military as the “real” political commissar of Zanu PF. They do this because they can and nobody can stop them, whatever the law says.

By now the opposition parties must surely know that the problem is hardly with the men and women who are commissioners of ZEC. They are figureheads who have no power in real terms, notwithstanding what the constitution or the Electoral Law says. This is why despite the countless correspondence we wrote or the meetings we held with them, their word really counted for nothing and they could not do anything. If they are to take any blame, it is that they have allowed to carry a burden that is not theirs and to soil their reputations in the process. They are to be pitied, not blamed.

The opposition parties know or should know that the real centre of authority is in the secretariat of ZEC and another obscure, less-known but most critical organ called the National Logistics Committee, which is the one that actually runs the elections. This committee is populated largely by Zanu PF functionaries, albeit under the cover of civil service and state institutional roles. Many people now about ZEC but very few are aware of this crucial committee. And because no-one pays attention to it, they literally do as they please. Those who run the logistics of an election control the election. If you want reforms, you look into these little and obscure but critical bodies.
When the opposition parties negotiated the GNU, they concentrated on reforming the top-tier of ZEC, by nominating their own commissioners. This also happened in other commissions. What they did not know then, was that the real site of reform was not that top-tier but the lower-tier consisting of the secretariat and the other little but obscure bodies like the National Logistics Committee.

In conclusion, all this raises an important issue that the electorate must be asking: What is the MDC and other opposition parties doing to ensure that reforms are implemented. Because to be sure, electoral reforms are not merely about changing the laws and regulations. They go deeper than that, into the attitude, behaviour and conduct of those with responsibilities under the electoral laws and in electoral institutions. Failure to abide by the rules must have a cost. If there is no cost or if the cost is law, there is no incentive for them to comply. What the opposition should be focussing on are ways in which to raise the cost of non-compliance with electoral laws.

Election boycotts work sometimes, as was the case in the presidential run-off election in 2008. Tsvangirai boycotted that election and it raised the cost of non-compliance, forcing President Mugabe and Zanu PF to the negotiating table even after he had “won” a “resounding victory” in what was effectively a one-man race. The price of non-compliance and violence was that the result was robbed of its legitimacy ad recognition.

It might have worked on July 31 2013, because SADC, the AU and others would have understood the boycott. But on this occasion, I am just not convinced that the boycott of the by-elections has or can achieve the same effect. I think it is two years too late and in constituencies where the Zanu PF rigging machinery would have been under the most severe stress, given that these are traditionally, opposition strongholds.

I raised the issues to highlight the complexities of the electoral reform agenda. It is not a simple overnight affair. My fear is that if the MDC and other opposition parties stick to this line religiously and refuse to be flexible to deal with elections on a case by case basis, it could be a very long time before they contest Zanu PF. Rather than box themselves in the “no elections without reforms” corner, the opposition parties need to be exploring avenues by which to confront and beat the system, however skewed it is.

Two years ago, Zanu PF was intact and working solidly as a unit. This is no longer the case. The reconfiguration of the political landscape is itself a new space that has been created which can and must be exploited. Two years ago, the opposition had virtually no access into the old Zanu PF structures. This has changed, with the vanquished Mujuru group opening up new channels that can and must be exploited.

The truth of the matter is that it is going to take an exceedingly lengthy period of time before electoral reforms as highlighted in this paper can be achieved. But meanwhile, the opposition must remain vigilant and alert to the new opportunities and avenues that the evolving political landscape is generating. That way it can liberate itself from the “no elections without reforms” box.

For a long time after the 2013 elections I was despondent and had written off the 2018 elections. The events in Zanu PF over the last half-year and the fact that the ruling party has shown itself to utterly incapable of transforming the economy and therefore the downward spiral of the economy have revived some minute hope that there might still be a chance. It will depend not merely on electoral reforms, but whether the opposition parties, including the new entrants can exploit the opportunity that is presented. If the MDC does not free itself from the box of “no elections without reforms”, they might never contest an election again because these reforms might never come to complete satisfaction. What’s better is to seize opportunities when they arise.