By: Carlos Vieira
HARARE, ZIMBABWE – Zimbabwe’s ability to conduct safe, free and fair elections on July 31 were put in serious doubt early this week when a two day early voting exercise for members of the military, police and others on duty during election day rapidly turned chaotic.
The special vote, which wrapped up on Monday, has been an ongoing point of contention among observers and opposition members who fear that not enough has been done to avoid tampering and rigging. The armed forces and the police have long been considered to be a direct extension of the Zanu-PF, the political party of current President Robert Mugabe. Their actions in the 2008 elections, where they inflicted mass violence and intimidation on the population, did nothing to assuage these doubts.
Accusations that officers were ordered to vote for President Robert Mugabe or face severe consequences in 2008 came to the forefront as a very real possibility with this year’s special vote as well.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the body responsible for conducting the special vote and the watershed elections in a few weeks, attempted to deal with concerns by claiming they had learnt their lesson from 2008. ZEC said they had implemented reforms to the special voting system that they claimed would deter any rigging, tampering and general chaos.
Despite these confident claims, scenes from the 209 special voting stations set up across the country on Sunday and Monday would largely indicate the ZEC has thus far failed in their mandate.
Voting that was to begin at 7:30 am on Sunday had, in some areas, still not started as of 5 pm that evening with thousands of officers left to wait impatiently, festering in frustration. In some cases, senior officers were called in to establish order after hectic scenes of pushing and shoving were threatening to destabilize the whole process. The same delays took place on Monday ensuring thousands of officers will not have the time to cast their ballots.
In consequence, the ZEC has been accused of a severe lack of preparation and overall ability. On Monday, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said “I want to express my disappointment in the people we have entrusted to run the country’s elections and this is ZEC,” he said. “We no longer have confidence in this commission and it can be disastrous come the real polls.”
The cause of the lengthy delays were said to be a lack of ballots, an inexcusable offence in light of the fact that ZEC knew the number of registered special voters, 87,000, over a week before the vote was to commence.
“If ZEC has no capacity to run an election for only 80, 000 people, then what will happen at the end of the month when 6 million people will be voting?” Tsvangirai lamented.
In its defence, the ZEC said last minute MDC –T candidate changes meant ballots in certain constituencies needed to be printed last minute.
In addition to its unpreparedness, the ZEC has been accused of blatant disregard of severe anomalies within the special voter registration. ZEC said they had received registration applications from over 69, 000 police officers, a number many are claiming to be a gross fabrication.
To put things into perspective, in 2012, according to Statistics Canada, Canada had 69, 539 registered police officers for a population of nearly 35 million. Zimbabwe, with a mere population of 14 million, is claiming to have just as many.
The opposition MDC party, citing a recent finance ministry salary schedule, has said there are only 41, 133 members of the police eligible to vote. Where the extra 30, 000 officers come from, no one is sure.
ZEC’s handling of the highly suspicious anomaly has come under fire. Chairperson Rita Makarau said they are taking the numbers they have been given from the Chief of Police at face value. “We do not interfere lest we be interfered with,” she said. “We are taking these numbers as fact and unless someone comes up with credible evidence to discount these numbers they will remain unquestioned.”
With the board of ZEC left largely unchanged from its 2008 version perhaps real improvement was too much to ask. With two weeks remaining until the whole country takes to the polls, ZEC has little time to regroup and get things right.