THE INTERVIEW WITH Sifelani Tsiko
Elections, it is said, are the core component of democracy. After gaining its independence in 1980 Zimbabwe, has organised and held elections whenever they were due. Despite numerous problems and setbacks, the country has largely made significant improvements in its electoral system after years of steady reforms and international support. Since the launch of the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) by President Mugabe on September 18 this year, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has registered nearly 1,2 million voters out of the targeted seven million. This alone represents another significant milestone in the strengthening of the country’s electoral processes. Our Senior Writer Sifelani Tsiko (ST) speaks to ZEC chairperson Justice Rita Makarau (RM) on various issues pertaining to preparations for the 2018 general election.
ST: On October 10 2017, ZEC launched a BVR blitz across the country to register voters. You stated that the registration process will last for 72 days and it will be held in four phases with each kit spending 16 days at one centre. Could you briefly tell us about the major achievements you made in the first phase which began on October 10?
RM: A total of 1 240 459 voters were registered during the first phase of the Biometric Voter Registration exercise launched on 10 October 2017 and completed on 25 October 2017. All in all, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) established 2 528 voter registration centres. The commission managed to cover most of the country’s regions that are difficult to access during the rainy season and that in itself is a major achievement.
ST: The registration process started slowly, but later picked up with many people being registered. What could have led to the increased interest and enthusiasm in the process?
RM: The increased interest is attributed to the commission, as well as other stakeholders’ publicity efforts on voter education and publicity strategy which improved during the course of voter registration. ZEC employed various strategies which included face-to- face meetings, addressing gatherings, road shows, distribution of flyers, pamphlets, posters, radio and television programmes and advertisements, as well as disseminating information on the ZEC website. Several civil society organisations were also accredited to augment the commission’s voter education exercise. In addition, the commission established a Call Centre to receive queries from the general public.
ST: What were some of the major problems you encountered during the first phase of the voter registration process? How are you addressing these challenges?
RM: Voter registration officers encountered a few technical hitches here and there, which included failure to record dry fingerprints and some machine failure, which were quickly rectified. As the officers gained experience, the registration process gathered some momentum. Some technical hitches included the missing information which has since been rectified through the development of an enabling software.
ST: ZEC stated that the second phase would begin on October 29 up to November 13 while the third phase would run from November 16 to the 1st of December. The fourth and last phase would run from December 4 to 19. Do you think, time would be adequate for most people to register? Will you be able to reach the targeted seven million target?
RM: The Commission is satisfied with progress made so far and it is confident that it will manage to register all prospective registrants who will turn up for voter registration within the stipulated time frame. We are still optimistic that we will reach the target we set.
ST: How much money does ZEC need to be able to fully carry out the BVR process and help it attain its target of reaching seven million people?
RM: As stated before the onset of the voter registration exercise, the Commission needs over $50 million for the whole voter registration exercise. Part of that money has already been availed by Government to the tune of $7,59 million used to procure 3 000 BVR kits that are already in the field.
ST: From the first day of the BVR process, critics say there were reports of some registration irregularities or malpractices. They say some people were forced to submit serial numbers of their registration slips to some political leaders while in some cases villagers were told that BVR kits will record videos as people vote in the 2018 elections. According to your assessment, how widespread were such cases? How are you dealing with such issues?
RM: Such reports of intimidation have reached the Commission, but it is difficult to ascertain their prevalence. The Commission recently held a meeting with political parties represented in Parliament where the parties were told to desist from the illegal practice. ZEC would like to inform members of the public that the secrecy of the ballot is guaranteed even if one submits the voter registration slip to someone as this does not serve any purpose.
ST: There were numerous calls to scrap the requirement for potential voters to provide proof of residence. The complainants said this precondition served no purpose apart from making the registration process cumbersome. In some cases, reports abound that village heads are charging people for them to write letters that serve as proof of residence. What is your comment on this? How best can this issue be handled for now and in the future?
RM: Firstly, the proof of residence is a legal requirement, hence the Commission has to comply with provisions of the Electoral Act. Secondly, the proof of residence enables the registrant to be allocated a particular polling station where they will vote next year. Remember, the country has adopted the polling station specific voters’ roll whereby an eligible voter’s name appears at one polling station only.
ST: International support is critical for the development of Zimbabwe’s electoral processes. Japan donated $1 million as part of Tokyo’s contribution to promote the work of the electoral management body. Which other countries have also supported ZEC in its work? Could you state their level of support?
RM: Besides Japan, no other country has directly assisted ZEC in implementing the Biometric Voter Registration exercise.
ST: The United Nations Development Programme has also played an active role in supporting the country’s electoral process. Could you give us the breakdown of support coming from the UN agency, as well as other multilateral bodies? Do you think international support is critical to enhancing the quality of electoral processes in Zimbabwe?
RM: Of course, international support is critical as long as it does not interfere with the independence of the relevant institutions to conduct free, fair and credible processes.
ST: 2018 is just too close now. Is ZEC prepared to run the 2018 harmonised elections? What is your general comment on the state of your preparedness?
RM: The current voter registration exercise is a precursor to the 2018 harmonised elections. ZEC is confident that it will be ready when the time for the elections arrives.
ST: Zimbabweans are taking huge interest in the voter registration exercise. What is your comment on the future of democracy in Zimbabwe? Is our democracy thriving and advancing in the context of our electoral process?
RM: The definition of the term democracy is quite elusive as it depends on who is defining it, their background, perceptions and interests. However, it is the Commission’s view that democratic principles as enshrined in the country’s Constitution are being upheld in Zimbabwe. This is being demonstrated by conducting credible elections whenever they are due. Our processes borrow heavily from the standard and international best practices.