Leveling the playing field for political parties in Zimbabwe's 2023 election - the role of election observation and monitoring


At a time when the continent has been hit by a spate of coups reminiscent of past military regimes of the 1980s, ensuring the 2023 elections in Zimbabwe are held to the highest standards has the potential to rekindle the hopes and promises of democracy in the continent. However, this will depend on whether the African Union and the Southern African Development Community will commit to seeing Zimbabwe adhere to principles governing elections in the continent.

Observers from SADC attend a press briefing in Harare ahead of polls on Aug 23

As Zimbabwe prepares for its highly anticipated 2023 election, ensuring a fair and transparent electoral process has become paramount. In this endeavour, the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are critical in fostering a level playing field for all political parties and stakeholders. By actively engaging in and monitoring the electoral process, they would bolster confidence, promote democratic principles, and contribute to a peaceful and credible election in Zimbabwe. Elections are not singular events but complex processes involving various stages, from voter registration to candidate campaigning, voting and the declaration of results. The analysis below seeks to make the case that unless election observation and monitoring by the AU and the SADC is performed diligently and effectively, the electoral process in Zimbabwe will continue to rubber-stamp the legitimacy of the government of the day. African electoral observer missions in Zimbabwe have tended to overemphasise polling-day events when evaluating the credibility of elections, neglecting to recognise the significance of violence during the pre-election phase. 

Zimbabwe’s upcoming 2023 election and the need for a level playing field

Since embracing democratisation in 1980, Zimbabwe has struggled with managing multiparty democracy and has, since 1985, experienced waves of election-related violence. As is the case in most African countries, the primary reason for the lack of credibility of Zimbabwe's presidential elections is that the condition of a level playing field for the incumbent and the opposition is always absent. Before the 2018 elections, civil society and opposition parties marched for electoral reforms, including the need for media reform and fair voter registration. However, the lack of these reforms undermined the outcome of the 2018 election, resulting in state-sponsored violence. Equally, the Final Report of the Commission of Inquiry to investigate post-election violence concluded that "…In so far as electoral reform is concerned…the government has not done anything."

As the country prepares for the 2023 election, outstanding issues on electoral reforms such as media access and unfair voter registration processes point to the high risk of another disputed election and possibly election-related violence. For instance, the restricted coverage of live broadcasts for the main opposition, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) and the consistently negative portrayal in the primary state newspaper, The Herald, erode the integrity and fairness of the upcoming election. Moreover, an urgent High Court application on August 11, 2023, seeking an order to compel the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to provide an up-to-date copy of the voters’ roll and final list of polling stations for the elections was dismissed by Judge Never Katiyo on August 15 saying it was not urgent, even though the election is less than a week away. 

In 2008, ZEC admitted that the voters’ roll used in the 29 March poll was in ‘shambles’. Similarly, in 2013, ‘the voters’ roll was reported to contain at least one million dead voters, over 350 000 who were over 85 years old and 109 000 over 100 years old- one of which was 135 years old.’ Notwithstanding the issues above, a Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) was adopted for the 2018 election. The new system allowed for the voter's digital photos and fingerprints we captured, which arguably improved the credibility of the voters’ roll. Despite this, the accuracy and integrity of the voters’ roll was a central point of contention which remained under scrutiny.  The above issues underscore the urgent need for comprehensive and transparent reforms to ensure a credible electoral process. The 2023 election remains crucial in measuring Zimbabwe's commitment to political freedoms and democracy. 

As the country prepares for the 2023 election, outstanding issues on electoral reforms point to the high risk of another disputed election and, possibly, election-related violence. These elections remain crucial in measuring Zimbabwe's commitment to political freedoms and democracy.

When the late Robert Mugabe – the country’s former president who was in office from 1980 – was removed via a coup on 21 November 2017, the public was thrown into a frenzy of approval. The coup was the culmination of a combination of factors. Mugabe had brutally cracked down on social movements such as #tajamuka, which had been protesting against the declining economy and quality of living since 2016. The AU and the SADC had also been unsuccessful in their attempts to influence Mugabe to be tolerant of opposition political parties and social movements exercising their democratic right to protest. Five years later, Zimbabwe faces its worst enemy through economic challenges, skyrocketing inflation and an endemic unemployment crisis. Yet again, the opposition has accused the current government of committing acts of repression against those protestors demanding free and fair elections. 

In 2013 and 2018, the AU and the SADC failed to reprimand Zimbabwe for repeat violations, lack of transparency, and timeous access to an electronic voters' roll for all parties and citizens. Zimbabwe violated its electoral law and the SADC's Principles and Guidelines, including media access laws and regulations of the voters' roll.  This approach to elections by AU and SADC is a significant factor undermining democratic elections in Zimbabwe and the greater region, and it must change!

Political violence, gerrymandering and political biases by the state media have also plagued previous electoral processes and raised concerns about the fairness of elections. As Zimbabwe prepares for its next election in 2023, it is essential that both the AU and the SADC underscore the challenges that have plagued previous electoral processes. 

The importance of a free and fair election for Zimbabwe

A free and fair election is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy, since it ensures that people's will is heard and respected, promoting inclusivity and public trust. In this upcoming election, a free and fair election process requires that the Zimbabwean government respects each individual’s right to make voting decisions free from coercion or intimidation. Political parties should share equal rights for campaigning for voter support, including holding meetings and rallies without fear. When political parties and their candidates compete on a level playing field, the electoral process becomes transparent, fostering confidence in the outcome. Free and fair elections lay the foundation for peaceful transitions, the acquisition of power, and the advancement of democratic values. Critical development efforts cannot succeed ‘without a legitimate and democratically elected government that is responsive and accountable to its citizens’. Zimbabwe faces an ongoing economic crisis and a collapsing public healthcare system, and a credible election is necessary to overcome the challenges at hand.

Issues and controversies in Zimbabwe’s 2023 election build-up

Since 2018, Zimbabwe has witnessed significant developments that raise concerns about the prospects of a free, fair and credible election. Firstly, the opposition has faced severe restrictions on their ability to campaign freely. They have either been banned from campaigning or denied clearance by the police, who often cite trivial reasons such as a lack of accessible infrastructure. In contrast, the ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has not encountered such obstacles, even when similar issues exist. Secondly, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) has been embroiled in controversies surrounding the voters’ roll. Anecdotal reports suggest the released voters’ roll is not searchable, raising concerns about the credibility of the electoral process. An up-to-date and accessible voters’ roll prevents electoral fraud, such as cases of multiple voting and impersonation, issues that have historically undermined elections' credibility in Zimbabwe. Thirdly, Zimbabwe’s state-controlled media has shown bias by providing unfair coverage to the opposition. While it has continuously portrayed the ruling party and its president positively, highlighting their development efforts, it deliberately labels the opposition as traitors or cult members and blames them for Zimbabwe's challenges. For instance, there are allegations that the opposition promotes the Western sanctions agenda against the government of the day. Lastly, on the 14th of July 2023, the President of Zimbabwe passed the controversial Patriotic Bill, which puts opponents of the government at considerable risk, with the law criminalising any speech that it views as harmful to the country’s image and integrity. Such legislation in a country with a history of abuses of individual freedoms will significantly undermine the right to freedom of expression and decrease the possibility of free and fair elections. 

Furthermore, the country’s police have frequently raided opposition meetings and arrested members. For instance, the vice chairman of the main opposition party, Job Sikhala of the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC), has been held in custody without trial for a year and has repeatedly been denied bail. Lastly, despite constitutional guarantees of non-interference, the growing military involvement in various sectors raises doubts regarding impartiality. The increasing military presence in the country’s politics, administration and economy – particularly their clear partisanship towards the incumbent, cannot be ignored. This overt military partisanship overshadows the election's credibility and underscores the imperative need for due diligence from the AU and the SADC’s electoral monitoring and observation missions to ensure a free and transparent process. 

What, then, can be done?

SADC’s historical engagement in election monitoring and observation in Zimbabwe

The AU and the SADC generally accepted the outcomes of the Zimbabwean elections in 2000, 2002, 2013, and 2018. The one notable exception was the case of the 2008 presidential election. The AU and SADC observed that the 2008 election was characterised by a violent pre-election period. SADC noted that the run-off election did not represent the people’s will. In its final verdict, the AU concluded that the run-off fell short of its standards. The AU resolution endorsed President Thabo Mbeki’s facilitating of talks that led to the signing of a Global Partnership Agreement. However, it is essential to highlight the reservations regarding election-related violence during the pre-and post-election phases.

In 2000, the SADC’s Electoral Observation Mission (EOM) concluded that the elections were legitimate and reflected the people's will. At the time, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) acknowledged that the election was generally peaceful, allowing the people of Zimbabwe to exercise their right to vote successfully.

In 2002, the SADC Parliamentary Forum (SADC PF) was critical of the elections, stating that the insecurity and fear that have prevailed in Zimbabwe since the parliamentary elections of 2000 were not conducive to holding functional elections. The SADC PF report raised concerns about issues such as the polarisation of biased state media.

The year 2008 marked a significant deviation from the trend. The SADC described the March election as peaceful and reflecting the people's will. However, it condemned the June 2008 presidential run-off due to the prevalence of political violence and intimidation, which compromised the credibility of the elections. The SADC preliminary statement in June 2008 also noted that the election did not conform to the SADC principles.

In 2013, SADC declared the election credible, indicating its acceptance of the process and outcome. Moving on to 2018, the SADC EOM stated that the pre-election and voting proceeded peacefully and orderly. However, it did not provide a final verdict on the election. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the post-election result and resultant violence, the AU Mission received reports of intimidation, beatings, and detentions, indicating concerns about the electoral process. In the Joint statement by the International Election Observer to the election, the AU expressed that there was a peaceful and orderly pre-electoral environment and on voting day. However, they expressed concern about the regrettable outbreaks of post-election violence on 1 August 2018. 

A notable contrast exists between the verdicts given on elections by the SADC’s Electoral Observation Missions (SEOMs) and those of non-African observers, such as those belonging to the European Union (EU) and the Commonwealth. In the case of the 2002 elections, both the EU and Commonwealth observers declared that the elections were not free and fair due to the presence of violence. However, African observer missions have often overlooked how violence undermines the credibility of elections. Despite reports of violence during the pre-election phase, African observer missions have sometimes evaluated elections based primarily on those events that occur on polling day, which is usually peaceful. This approach undermines the overall electoral process and needs to be revised. African observer missions need to learn from non-African observer missions and broaden their scope of evaluation to encompass the entire electoral process rather than focusing solely on polling day. 

There is, therefore, clear evidence that while non-African observer missions recognise the central role of violence in their final verdicts, African observer missions do not. This discrepancy needs to be addressed and changed moving forward.

SADC’s possible contribution to Zimbabwe’s 2023 election

  • Technical Expertise and Capacity Building: The SADC contributes to Zimbabwe's election integrity by providing technical expertise and capacity building to local election officials, enhancing their understanding of democratic principles and electoral processes.
  • Impartiality and Transparency: The SADC's electoral monitoring missions uphold impartiality and transparency, acting as a deterrent to electoral irregularities and fostering an environment conducive to free and fair elections in Zimbabwe.
  • Recommendations and Remedial Measures: The SADC's electoral observation missions provide comprehensive reports and recommendations, identifying areas for improvement and facilitating electoral reforms in Zimbabwe, thereby strengthening the overall integrity of future elections.

Key steps moving forward

Collaboration between Zimbabwe and the SADC is crucial to ensure credible elections. The critical steps in this collaboration are as follows:

  1. Electoral Reforms: To enhance the independence of the electoral management body and improve transparency in its electoral process, Zimbabwe needs to implement the necessary electoral reforms. The SADC can provide technical assistance and guidance in implementing these reforms.
  2. Pre-Election Assessment: Between 14 and 20 May 2023, the Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC countries conducted pre-assessment missions in Zimbabwe. On 21 July 2023, a comprehensive report was presented during the twenty-fifth ordinary meeting of the ministerial council of the organ. The SADC must identify and address issues such as voter registration processes, the impartiality of the media, and the overall political climate that impacts the election's credibility. Emphasising the implications of these issues is paramount.
  3. Electoral Observation Missions: The SADC’s missions should closely monitor all stages of the electoral process, including voter registration, campaigning, voting, and counting of ballots. Visibility at polling stations will be a critical factor in identifying potential issues that may arise during the voting procedure. Observers should operate independently and produce detailed reports on the credibility of the elections. 
  4. Stakeholder Engagement: The SADC can facilitate dialogue and engagement among political parties, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders in Zimbabwe. This inclusive approach ensures that diverse perspectives are considered and helps build trust in the electoral process. Notably, this will depend on whether the organ will commit to seeing Zimbabwe achieve to uphold the principles governing democratic elections.
  5. Post-Election Evaluation: After the elections, the SADC should conduct a comprehensive evaluation to assess the overall credibility and fairness of the electoral process. This evaluation should include reviewing the implementation of electoral reforms, investigating any reported irregularities, and providing recommendations for future improvements.

Significance of credible elections

A credible election in Zimbabwe will benefit the country's struggling economy. It will inspire confidence among investors, attract foreign aid and assistance, and stimulate economic growth. A revitalised economy offers employment opportunities and improved living conditions, which would curtail the outward migration of Zimbabweans seeking better prospects. Emigration from Zimbabwe has significant implications for the SADC region, particularly South Africa, where the influx of undocumented Zimbabwean migrants into the country has become a contentious issue in South Africa’s local politics. A politically and economically stable, prosperous Zimbabwe would alleviate the strain on neighbouring countries, contributing to regional stability.

From this provenance, two questions beg the answer from Africa’s observer missions. Are they prepared to diligently and effectively observe and monitor Zimbabwe’s 2023 election? If so, what measures will they take to ensure a thorough assessment of the electoral process?