Too many cooks spoil the broth. That’s true, of course, but once in a while, it takes only one cook to do that, breaking the utensils and burning down the kitchen too. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is a good case of such a cook.
ZEC, as a cook, does all sorts of clumsy things. It has started serving a meal that it is still cooking. On its own admission, it is only half-way through with the printing of the presidential ballot and is still to complete the job on the parliamentary and municipal ballots. But what does it then do? It starts dishing out ballots to police details and God knows who else as it puffs and huffs in the kitchen.
We saw that happening in Bulawayo last Thursday. Police chiefs—as irate informants within the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) were quick to spill the beans—commandeered junior police officers to the Ross Camp provincial headquarters on the pretext that they would be briefed on their impending duties during the July 30 general elections.
No briefing of such a kind ever took place. Instead, the cops—500 hundred or so of them—were ordered into a long and restless queue and told by one chief superintendent that the reason they were there was they must vote. From nowhere, Ross Camp had been turned into a polling station which I doubt exists on the ZEC delimitation map.
The hapless cops were sternly advised that if they refused to vote, they would be excluded from election duties. That was a criminal threat, of course. And it also put the junior cops in a quandary because they need the money. Election duties are going to give them an early bonus, so they have to be there at any cost. Not that they had a choice anyway. Refusing to do the bosses’ bidding easily leads to victimisation.
It turned out too that, despite the useless denials by ZRP, the cops were forced to spread out their ballots before the said chief superintendent and vote. You guessed right about where the X would always go. Again, contrary to the claims by the police, this exercise started well in the morning, before any observers or Zec officials even knew what was going on.
It’s easy to start blaming the police chefs for trying to illegally manage voting in the name of postal voting. They were misplaced in their actions, just as they have always been. This is how they have always handled the “postal” votes. But the ultimate culprit was Zec. Zimbabwe must be the only country in the history of modern democracy where ballots are dished out before printing of the papers is completed.
That presents the first problem. It doesn’t wash to try and argue that there is a July 16 deadline that must be met for postal ballots. ZEC and its principals set for themselves a tight deadline. They promulgated July 30 as the election date despite the reality that they could have been kinder with themselves and set a later and more flexible day for voting. Zec was still in the process of not only cleaning the voters roll but also identifying the ballot printer, among other primary logistical requirements.
Rushing to distribute postal votes before the completion of the printing of ballots compromises electoral transparency and accountability. It’s bad enough that Zec has managed the biometric voter registration process and the subsequent production and processing of the voters roll with abundant opacity. It’s worse now that it has created room for the abuse of ballots. After the Ross Camp scandal, Zec quickly acknowledged that there are more than 7,000 postal voters whose ballots must be with the commission in a few days. Despite an initial denial that no postal voting was taking place, the officials clumsily climbed down and admitted that polling was, indeed, under way for those voters who would be away from their own places.
It’s possible that, had the junior officers not spilled the beans, the ballots that had been distributed for the sham postal voting could be claimed to be spoilt ballots. That would then give room for ballot stuffing. How? Zec would simply go ahead and print an equal number of ballots, if not more, and claim these would go for postal voting. Soldiers, too, would have been given extra ballots and voted before voting again on July 30. That is because nobody except Zec and its handlers would have access to the actual number of ballots being printed.
I guess this is the ultimate reason why the opposition was spoiling to witness the printing of the ballots. It must have been less concerned with the quality of the ballots but more with the print run. With all those reports about ballot stuffing in all the previous elections, this makes good sense. But the worry doesn’t end with the print run. It is also unsettling that Zec allowed the ballots to be relayed in such a weird manner. There was nothing postal about that. The ballot envelopes were relayed en masse to the police commanders instead of individual applicants so as to guarantee secrecy and in accordance with the law.
That means Zec fatally removed itself from its constitutional and statutory duty to ensure the security of the ballots and left everything in the hands of a hawkish clique in ZRP, the security sector and, of course, Zanu PF. So Zec’s commission of carelessly handing over the management of ballots to the police top management translated into an illegal omission.
The commission must have ensured that the law was followed to the dot. Sections 74 and 75 of the Electoral Act are express on how postal votes must be handled. They must be relayed through registered post or courier straight to the approved postal voters who must vote secretly instead of before a red-eyed commander as was the case at Ross Camp. The onus is also on the voters to return the ballots on their own, rather than through a block system as we saw on that day.
And it is unflattering for Zec that it didn’t even know that the police chiefs had harvested the ballots and proceeded to set up an unsanctioned polling station at Ross Camp. That killed whatever little credibility remained at Zec. If an electoral commission suffers a credibility crisis, so will the elections. It would be the same thing as expecting a hyena to sire a lamb, or getting an anti-malaria dose from a mosquito. That means the elections have suffered stillbirth in as far as credibility and fairness are concerned.
Tawanda Majoni is the Information for Development (IDT) national coordinator and can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.