ZANU-PF, which has now pledged to implement electoral reforms to comply with Southern African Development Community (SADC) principles and guidelines for democratic elections, may have already completed rigging next year’s elections though they are still six months away.
A new book just released in Norway, entitled: And the winner might be…. Democratic elections and independent journalism, says vote rigging is more than stuffing ballot boxes before voters arrive. It is usually done weeks or months before international observers and journalists arrive.
“There are many ways of rigging an election, most of which are invisible to outsiders,” the book says. The only thing observers and journalists from overseas see when they arrive is intimidation at the polls.
“Even then, a journalist from overseas may not realise that the group of young men singing near the polling place is actually youth militia who have been known to be beating everybody, and whose presence is a threat to people on their way to the polls,” says Andrew Meldrum, an American journalist who was expelled from Zimbabwe last year, in an interview with the editor of the book Tomm Kristiansen. “They may think this is normal, whereas local people realise this is a very threatening situation.”
“Vote rigging is more sophisticated than half empty ballot boxes,” Kristiansen says in the chapter on Elections the African way. “It starts long before the election observers arrive.”
“The vote rigging has occasionally been done when the journalists arrive to report that the election was held without disruption. It may be a description of a patient queue outside a polling station, but did the people at the back get a chance to vote? And were the queues longest in opposition strongholds? Was it a coincidence that there was not such a shortage of ballot papers in government strongholds?”
Zimbabwe has held elections regularly, every five-years, since independence but accusations of vote rigging intensified following ZANU-PF’s controversial victory over the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 2000.
The party’s victory, soon after voters had rejected a proposed new constitution in a national referendum, sparked accusations of vote rigging, especially because of the voter intimidation in the run-up to the elections.
The MDC, the strongest opposition party Zimbabwe has ever had even prior to independence, nearly swept the election and challenged results in 37 constituencies but most of the cases have not yet been heard with only weeks to go to the next polls scheduled for March.
The MDC says it will not contest any elections unless Zimbabwe abides by the principles and guidelines adopted by SADC at its summit in Mauritius in August. The principles include among, other things, levelling the playing field by allowing all contesting parties access to the state media and freedom to campaign.
Zimbabwe has pledged to abide by the rules but observers say the concessions so far made by the government fall far too short of the SADC requirements.
The Norwegian book says one way of rigging elections is allowing or forbidding citizens living outside the country to vote. Zimbabwe has barred citizens living outside the country from voting. The book argues that these citizens could have social and political views that could influence the elections. In most cases they might be sympathetic to the opposition hoping that it can address the economic ills they ran away from.
It also says timing is important. Are the election days suitable only for one party? Is election day close to a religious holiday?
“A government may decide that people have to vote in the area they are registered. This may not sound unreasonable, but could be a form of manipulation, however legal it is,” the book says arguing that such a decision means that people have to travel to areas they were registered in. This means they have to have the necessary bus fare.
The book also asks a critical question: what should come first, elections or democracy? “Elections do not create democracies,” it says. “Free and fair elections can only be held when the basic rules of democracy have been established. And it is far from certain that Africa needs western-style democracies, because the democracy we imagine is based on our traditions. In reality we demand that they set up the European Democracy, or the American Democracy, that is, if the Americans have any credibility left as a role model for the world.”
It adds: “This is the dogma: elections first. But it should be the other way around. The election is perhaps the last piece in building democracy. First of all, an administration must be set up to implement decisions. Money is needed to back these decisions. You need election promises that can be kept, and most importantly: a few politicians with democratic principles and a willingness for fair play.”