CIVICUS speaks about the general election in Zimbabwe and the role of civil society with Wellington Mbofana, former director of the Civic Education Network Trust (CIVNET), a civil society organisation (CSO) that recently shut down due to lack of funding, and a former board member of several Zimbabwean CSOs.
What was at stake in this election?
It’s difficult to pinpoint a single crucial issue that was at stake. Over a considerable period, Zimbabwean elections, much like those in other parts of Africa, have ceased to revolve around substantive issues and have instead become centred on political parties and personalities. This trend is evident in this election, in which major political parties failed to present their manifestos in a timely manner. The main opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), unveiled its programme merely two weeks prior to voting, while the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) didn’t even bother.
Given the crumbling state of the economy, reflected in record-breaking unemployment, pervasive economic informality, escalating poverty, the world’s second-highest inflation rate and a sense of hopelessness, economic strife remained the most prominent concern for voters. Ideally, the competition should have revolved around two or three contrasting strategies for addressing these economic woes. However, what we observed was a cloud of obfuscation. The ruling party advanced a narrative that conditions are improving and investors are flocking to the country, but progress would be even greater if it weren’t for sanctions imposed by Western states. The opposition pledged to outperform ZANU-PF across all fronts. But neither specified how they would fund their proposed initiatives.
To deal with Zimbabwe’s predicament effectively the government would need to confront a range of issues, including land reform and productivity, water shortages, electricity generation, infrastructure development and urbanisation and, most importantly, guarantee the required funding.
It should have been important to ensure the meaningfulness of this election because when elections fail, civil unrest and coups ensue, a truth that Africa has repeatedly witnessed.
Was there any election-related violence?
The prevalence of violence in all its manifestations – physical, structural and cultural – remains an unfortunate hallmark of Zimbabwean elections. Lives have been lost, injuries endured and property destroyed as a result.
It is also important to note that because of its fractured politics, the country is in a perpetual election mode. Over the past five years, we have had multiple recalls from parliament and local authorities, leading to by-elections. Instances of intra-party violence have also occurred during parliamentary and primary elections. The culture upholding the idea that wielding the strongest fist is the key to ascending to power must change. Violence is a cover for ideological ambivalence and lack of substantive programmes. Who needs a manifesto when you can use force?
What tactics did the government use to stifle dissent in the run-up to the election?
The ruling party stands accused of engaging in lawfare, a tactic that uses laws to constrain the opposition and human rights defenders. These efforts are facilitated by an allegedly captured judiciary. A prominent CCC legislator, Job Sikhala, along with other political activists and human rights defenders, languish in remand prisons on spurious allegations after being denied bail.
The government introduced controversial laws aimed at silencing dissent. The Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act, commonly called the Patriotic Bill, are clearly designed to deal with critics of the government.
The Patriotic Bill came into force on 14 July 2023. With this bill, the government created a new crime of ‘wilfully injuring the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe’. The scope and definition of this offence is vague. There are valid concerns that law enforcement agencies will interpret the law broadly and use it to stifle and penalise the work of independent civil society.
Citizens and permanent residents of Zimbabwe will be found guilty if they participate in meetings aimed at discussing or plotting armed intervention in Zimbabwe, subverting or overthrowing its government and implementing or extending sanctions or trade boycotts against Zimbabwe. A meeting encompasses any form of communication involving two or more people, regardless of whether it takes place offline or online.
Participating in discussions about armed intervention can result in life imprisonment or the death penalty if the meeting involves planning such an intervention. Discussing subversion or overthrow of the government is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Taking part in meetings discussing sanctions or trade boycotts can lead to a fine of up to US$12,000 or up to 10 years in prison, or both. Aggravated offences may lead to consequences such as the termination of citizenship for those who are not citizens by birth or descent, cancellation of residence permits for non-citizens and disqualification from voting or holding public office for five to 15 years.
In the hands of overzealous and partisan law enforcement agents, this punitive law is very dangerous. It seems to target not only the opposition and civil society but also factions within the fractured ruling party and the military. It likely seeks to prevent a recurrence of a military-assisted transition, which brought the current government to power in 2017. That coup was willingly accepted by powerful global players, including the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which inadvertently endorsed the idea of military change of power.
How did Zimbabwean civil society engage with the electoral process?
Civil society was actively involved in electoral activities throughout the electoral cycle. CSOs play a pivotal role in providing voter education, observing elections, advocating for electoral reforms, safeguarding human rights and offering legal, medical and psycho-social assistance to victims of human rights violations.
Both local and international observers were generally allowed and accredited. However, there were isolated cases, such as the denial of accreditation to Musa Kika, allegedly due to security risks, while some local citizens encountered intimidation, harassment and threats from unidentified people after engaging with international observers.
But unfortunately, the last couple of years have been very difficult for Zimbabwean. Several CSOs have shut down. CIVNET, a major organisation providing civic education, closed its doors this year due to lack of funding.
The Zimbabwean economy is too fragile to support a strong civil society, which heavily relies on international donors and solidarity. Further international support should be rendered to all groups promoting development, good governance, human rights, justice and the rule of law. The international community should also amplify local voices and exert pressure on the Zimbabwean government to act in accordance with international human rights and democratic standards.
What did CIVNET work on?
CIVNET operated through three main programmes: the Citizen Participation Programme, including two projects on constitutionalism and voter education, the Leadership Development Programme and the Peace Building Programme.
The Citizen Participation Programme encouraged citizen engagement in governance and development, fostering collaboration between communities and local authorities through participatory workshops and development projects. The Constitution and Constitutionalism Project aimed to raise awareness about the significance of the new constitution and share information on how to use it to exercise human rights and honour obligations as citizens.
The Leadership Development Programme enhanced leadership skills of people engaged in community projects. Our graduates now lead various Zimbabwean CSOs and work in local authorities and parliament. CIVNET contributed to the formation and development of CSOs such as the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, the Zimbabwe Peace Project and the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe. It was also a key member of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGOs Forum.
The Peace Building Programme helped people and communities divided by conflict to reach out to each other and mend broken relations. This was done through creatively designed workshops that provided security and safety to both victims and perpetrators of violent conflicts. Mediators were also trained to address local disputes, resulting in transformed relationships and improved dialogue within previously divided communities.
To what extent could the election be called free and fair?
The concept of free and fair elections involves political freedoms and fair processes prior to elections, culminating in the casting of votes by well-informed eligible voters able to vote freely for candidates and parties of their choice. A transparent tally of all valid votes, accurate result announcements and universal acceptance of the election outcomes by all parties are integral components of this concept.
Past elections in Zimbabwe have been contested at courts and other institutions. For Zimbabwe to uphold its position within the international community, this election would have to gain universal recognition as credible, legitimate and conducted in a free and fair manner. It would be key to ensure the acceptance of its outcome and secure peace and stability to attract investors.
The 2023 election was disputed in the legal arena even before a single ballot was cast. This may be a harbinger of future developments. On 12 July, the Electoral Court disqualified a presidential candidate, Savior Kasukuwere, whose participation had been previously permitted by the Nomination Court. Then the High Court disqualified 12 CCC parliamentary candidates, ostensibly for late filings, although the Nomination Court had accepted their submissions. Both decisions favoured the ruling party. However, following an appeal, the Supreme Court overturned the High Court’s verdict on the 12 CCC candidates, leading to their reinstatement on the ballot. On 19 July the electoral court ruled in favour of a leader of the opposition United Zimbabwe Alliance party, Elizabeth Valerio, whose candidacy had been initially rejected by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), also for alleged untimely filing.
Declaring the election to be free and fair would be unreasonable given the political environment characterised by violence, intimidation and voter suppression, non-transparent processes with the electoral roll and ballot paper printing, pre-voting by security personnel, biased media coverage, opposition rallies barred by the police, vote buying through handouts, influence from traditional and religious leaders on voters, misuse of government resources for party campaigns and indications that some parties will reject any outcome other than their own victory, implying that the ruling party wouldn’t have handed over power if it had lost. Indeed, SADC decided to abandon the term ‘free and fair’ regarding Zimbabwean elections, instead referring to them as ‘legitimate’.
What electoral reforms are needed?
Adherence to rule of law and impartial management of elections is essential. The ZEC should enforce the Electoral Code of Conduct, safeguarding the right for all to express their political views and campaign freely. It must also ensure fairness by curbing the misuse of state resources, preventing intimidation, harassment and destruction of campaign materials and improving voter education.
The police should fulfil their constitutional duties impartially, without bias, fear, or favour. Political parties should adhere to the Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Candidates. This entails refraining from violence, misuse of public resources for partisan ends, coercion and intimidation of the electorate and inciting violence through hate speech and derogatory language.
Were there any issues with people being prevented from voting, and what do you expect to happen next?
A high turnout was to be expected given the high stakes. The economy has done its own campaign, motivating people to participate. The ruling party also mobilised people, especially in rural areas, by any means necessary.
However, many voters might not have been able to locate their names on the register. The polling station-based system is such that people living in a specific neighbourhood can only vote at a certain polling station. In the 2018 election, a lot of people found their names had been removed from their usual stations without a change having been requested, while others who requested changes after moving to other districts saw those changes unimplemented. Following the election, many constituencies and councils had elected representatives recalled by political parties in power. Since there are no guarantees that this won’t happen again, some people may have been discouraged from voting.
Based on experience, disputes around results and their resolution by the courts are to be expected. Given that the judiciary is perceived to be captured and judges were given significant ‘housing loans’ before the election, judgements against the opposition are also rightly likely to be perceived as unfair.
Civic space in Zimbabwe is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.