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Can ZEC deliver?

Zimbabwe Electoral Commission chief elections officer

Lovemore Sekeramai

WHEN a press conference called by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) last week started 45 minutes late, it did not surprise many journalists. After all, this is a phenomenon peculiar to most government departments.
But what surprised many was the manner in which the press briefing started. Chief elections officer, Lovemore Sekeramai stood up and asked that a prayer precedes the main proceedings. Subsequently, one of the commissioners belted out a Christian song, and then prayer followed.
At that moment, ZEC officials turned what should have been a normal press briefing into a serene and somber event.
It raised a lot of questions too. Has ZEC shed its partisan colours for a more neutral shed that it is supposed to have? What has really changed at ZEC besides the personnel at the very top? Will the electoral body deliver a faultless or at least, near perfect electoral process than the disaster that happened in 2008?While the full verdict would be out come this year’s polls, not many people believe in ZEC’s ability to deliver a credible poll.
ZEC is the body which controls elections at all levels in Zimbabwe’s political landscape.
On their website, they say they are premised on independence, impartiality, teamwork, transparency, integrity, commitment and professionalism.
On the plus side, the commission is now headed by Justice Rita Makarau, a likeable judge who is supported by mostly female commissioners. Maybe that explains the spiritual approach to the press conference that resonates well with Zimbabwe’s largely Christian community.
But critics are skeptical whether the organisation itself has moved away from a proxy-like functionary of President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF.
Under George Chiweshe, now a High Court judge president, ZEC was roundly criticised in the 2008 elections for delaying the announcement of presidential election results by several weeks, prompting allegations that the results were being doctored in favour of President Mugabe.
The commissioners are themselves appointed by the President, an interested party in the electoral processes, while the secretariat is said to be stuffed with State security agents, whose bosses have declared their allegiance to one of the parties that would be contesting in the elections.
Thus, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) formations continue to lobby for a reformed ZEC, alleging that the electoral body’s secretariat was compromised by the presence of partisan members of the security establishment.
Security chiefs have flatly refused to recognise the need for security sector reforms, maintaining that they will never salute a winning presidential candidate without liberation war credentials, an apparent reference to Prime Minister (PM) Morgan Tsvangirai.
In recent weeks, security sector chiefs have upped the ante as they denigrate PM Tsvangirai and his MDC-T, with military commander Constantine Chiwenga calling the former trade unionist a “psychiatric patient” while prisons boss Paradzai Zimondi publicly urged his subordinates last week to vote for President Mugabe. Two weeks ago, police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri blasted the MDC-T leader for allegedly seeking to meet the service chiefs.
In previous elections, the service chiefs lined up to publicly denounce the MDC-T and PM Tsvangirai in a show of partisan politics, leading critics to deplore their attitude amid loud calls for an apolitical security sector establishment.
So, recent events have started to follow an all too familiar path.
On ZEC’s part, no one censured the securocrats then, neither did anyone from the organisation condemn their actions this time around. Consequently, as the custodians of the Zimbabwe’s electoral law, ZEC continues to get stick.
For instance, at last week’s press conference, Justice Makarau revealed that her organisation early this month deployed a team of two voter educators per district “to precede the teams deployed by the Registrar-General”. While admitting that the two voter educators were inadequate, she attributed this anomaly to a shortage of cash.
“The voter education exercise has, to date, only received US$500 000 from Treasury, against a budget of US$8 601 712,” she said.
Justice Makarau said unless more funds were availed to her organisation early, the voter education exercise would be crippled as some voter educators would walk “the entire length and breadth of their respective wards, some of which are fairly large”.
Yet outside, several brand new Toyota Prados were parked at ZEC head office, while inside, several brand new office chairs were wheeled into the boardroom, the venue of the press conference.
This obvious display of opulence, critics say, was a sign that nothing much has changed as the trappings of luxury continue to take precedence at the expense of national programmes.
Granted, certain positions in organisations have to be accorded the necessary perks in terms of remuneration, but prioritisation by the ZEC leadership cannot go unchallenged in the face of a pressing transportation deficit for voter educators who would at least have required simple motorcycles or even bicycles.
The mobile voter registration exercise itself, launched by ZEC last month, has been heavily criticised as shambolic, mired by controversy as many people have reportedly been turned away while voter educators from civil society have been arrested by the police for “impersonating public officials”.
So, while the prayers at meetings would herald a shift in image, symbolising a clean and repentant institution, ZEC is under considerable pressure, both locally and internationally, to shake off the ghost of 2008 and prove to all that it indeed oozes professionalism, transparency, impartiality and independence to list some of its ideals.