The Republic of Zimbabwe is poised to hold general elections next year but there are still many unresolved issues. Demands for reforms of the electoral system have been a constant feature of every election cycle in Zimbabwe since independence from Britain in 1980. The script is the same: as the harmonized national and local elections approach, opposition demands for changes to level the playing field are rejected by the ruling ZANU-PF party. Therefore, the current chaos was to be predicted if you look at what Zimbabwe inherited in the aftermath of its long-time leader Robert Mugabe, who was ousted in a coup in November 2017.
The United Nations and western governments, including the United States, have urged the holding of free and fair elections as a hallmark of democracy that provides legitimacy to a new government. This follows especially after months of postponed by-elections to fill 133 seats due for the National Assembly and local authority seats, most of which fell vacant following the recall of Members of Parliament and councilors by the opposition MDC-T party. The delays were in line with government COVID-19 regulations and the banning huge gatherings to curb the spread of the pandemic. However, the problems facing Zimbabwe are too vast to ignore and to delay. They include violence by non-state actors and the absence of electoral, institutional, and security sector reform frameworks that have universal support.
These challenges have significant implications for Zimbabwe’s future. Moving forward, it seems certain the country faces ongoing turmoil, state failure and protracted cycles of electoral and political conflict, more typical of a warzone than a functioning state.
The biggest challenge is that the government does not believe in a free and fair electoral field and has a monopoly over the legitimate use of a parliamentary two-thirds majority. In other words, there is no unified consensus on what should be changed and how to implement the changes. This has seen the opposition, mainly the newly formed Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC) party, complaining that the ruling ZANU-PF party has control over the entire electoral process and has the electoral body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), acting as a proxy.
This is one of the reasons why by-elections had to be repeatedly postponed until a March 26 date was set just days before the country was due for a United Nations Human Rights periodic review in Geneva where the issue of government use of COVID-19 control measures as tools to suppress democracy took center stage. As such, Zimbabwe is still awash with politics of elite self-entitlement. Hundreds of lawmakers are under the bondage of the whipping system from their respective political parties and any electoral reform has to satisfy the wishes and ambitions of the ruling elites who carve out their own fiefdoms without regard for the voters.
The government uses pieces of legislation such as the Maintenance of Peace and Order Act (Chapter 11:23) and Data Protection Act (Chapter 11:12) to quell dissent and implement its own electoral agenda. In effect, these bills were signed into law amid the concerns from human rights groups that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s jittery government was bent on stifling dissent on social media through the shroud of anti-spy laws ahead of 2023 watershed elections. Thus, electoral reforms are necessary if Zimbabwe has to make strides toward a democratic state and society.
Claims of vote-rigging after the presidential and parliamentary election results were announced in recent elections and the low levels of public trust in the electoral systems have put the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission in the spotlight. Like any other constitutionally-mandated electoral commission, ZEC is expected to be subject only to the constitution and to be independent—and hence not subject to the direction or control of any person or authority.
In addition to the constitution, some decent laws have also been enacted to govern elections in Zimbabwe. It is up to the politicians of Zimbabwe to build the capacity of the ZEC to deliver credible elections.
The independence of the judiciary has also been a subject of debate and it is doubtful that such independence will be respected by the electoral parties. Reforms undertaken following widespread violence around elections in 2008 have not significantly strengthened Zimbabwe’s courts.
Violent Militia and Security Sector Violence
The other challenge is that the government uses its monopoly over the legitimate use of force to its advantage. In other words, violent militia groups such as Chipangano, Mashurungwi and national youth service graduates ‘Green bombers’ are used to intimidate the opposition and its supporters, especially ahead of elections.
The national security apparatus that has control over the nation’s formidable weapons of war are also reportedly used by the government to further its political survival. In many places, particularly opposition strongholds, it is simply not safe to go to the polls when voters are being intimidated. Therefore, the country is still awash with violent non-state actors – different militia groups that engage in violence to undermine the electoral process. These militias and violent groups even vie for political power with each other while also being heavily involved in organized criminal activity.
Some of these militias, which are involved in human rights abuses, are even rewarded by the government (currently led by Emmerson Mnangagwa). For example, Owen Ncube, who was placed under sanctions by the United States over ‘involvement in gross rights abuses’, according to the US State Department, was until recently tasked with heading the State Security (secret service) ministry, which directly reported to the President. Ncube was only dismissed from his post last month without reason. Speculation indicates he was fired because of the violence that marred the ruling party’s provincial election in the Midlands province (the president’s home province).
Apart from the militia groups, police and armed forces brutality has also been an alarming feature of elections, making it clear that the security reforms call after the violence of 12 years ago and implementation of provisions in the constitution, have failed. The government is resisting calls for sweeping reforms, including security sector overhaul.
There has been little action to tackle these abuses by the institutions and individuals tasked with holding the police and military accountable. However, the Zimbabwe Independent Complaints Commission Bill which seeks to provide for a complaints mechanism for members of the public independent from each of the security services, that include the police, military and secret service, is still before parliament. The intentions are notably to reinforce oversight of the security sector; to re-build confidence in the justice system; and to provide justice and reparation to victims of human rights violations, many of which were committed by the security forces. However, if the bill is passed in its current form it will do little to tame security-apparatus-induced violence and bringing perpetrators of violence to book.
It is therefore important that improving scrutiny of police operations and fighting against impunity are the basis for avoiding history repeating itself in Zimbabwe. Regardless of the outcome of March 26 by-elections, Zimbabwe must continue to strengthen its reforms in the security sector ahead of the 2022 general elections.
In conclusion, Zimbabwe also faces political problems that cannot be addressed by the courts, electoral, institutional and security sector reforms. These challenges call for robust engagement by Zimbabwe’s civil society in using the new Constitution to consolidate democracy because it remains simply not safe to go to the polls without wholesale reform.