“Supporting Zimbabwe to get free and fair elections is not an event but a process”: The Role of the EU Election Observation Mission


The European Union deploys one of the largest observer missions to monitor the 2023 Zimbabwe elections. We spoke to Dr McDonald Lewanika, politics and development professional, about the importance of the verdict by EU election observers and what contributions European actors can make to assist Zimbabweans in getting the elections they want.

A member of the European Union Observation Mission to Zimbabwe addresses the media before deploying observers across the country

Earlier in the year, the European Union had sent 46 long-term observers and 11 political analysts to Zimbabwe. On Election Day over 150 observers from EU member states as well as Canada, Norway and Switzerland will be monitoring the elections. This is a much larger mission than was, for example, observing the elections in Nigeria earlier this year. How important are EU election observers to the election process in Zimbabwe?

The EU Election Observation Mission to Zimbabwe is critical to the electoral process in Zimbabwe, but for different reasons for different stakeholders. 

For the mission itself and the EU, this is an opportunity to take stock in situ around whether some of the recommendations that they made in 2018 regarding the electoral environment and technical election process, as well as broader electoral and political reforms, have been taken on board in policy and practice. They have a baseline from which they can measure the integrity of the elections in Zimbabwe, and signal if, and to what extent, there is progress toward democratic elections. 

For the Zimbabwean state, this big delegation is an opportunity to "show and tell" the progress made around electoral and political reforms, and also for participation to enhance Zimbabwe's place in re-engagement processes and conversations. The mission is critical to the Zimbabwean government and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front’s machinations around shaking off a stubborn pariah status characterised by sanctions, limited diplomatic engagements, and suppressed foreign direct investment. The mission’s verdict on the elections will be a critical factor as to whether or not, and how, Zimbabwe continues to re-establish cordial relations with the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States of America, and other Western states, as well as to the process of getting critical individuals and companies removed from sanctions lists. Their verdict will also be vital in terms of Zimbabwe’s intentions to rejoin the Commonwealth, and post-election processes around the African Development Bank-led multi-stakeholder debt and arrears clearance process. 

For the EU in general, based on its avowed value and respect for human rights and democracy, it will be tough to justify engagement with a rogue regime whose legitimacy is contested and whose hands are dripping with blood. Despite the fighting talk, the 2023 election, as well as the expected judgements by election observers like the EU Election Observation Mission about its credibility, freeness and fairness, will be crucial to Zimbabwe's bilateral and multilateral engagements post-election.

For Zimbabwe's civil society and citizens in general, the mission and the importance derived from its size make them essential as cover, security, and a listening ear around some of the concerns that they may have. Generally, the security dimension is more prescient, given election-related violence in the past, and their presence on the ground, allied with the above points, will provide a veneer of security for other election stakeholders outside of the ruling party and government.

You mentioned election-related violence in the past. The 2018 Harmonised Elections were marred by allegations of voter intimidation and manipulation. When presenting the final report, the Chief Observer of the EU Election Observation Mission, or EU EOM, back then listed 23 recommendations that would serve as important benchmarks for assessing the government's commitment to a democratic transition. What progress has been made so far?

As Zimbabwe heads towards the 2023 election, everyone seems to agree that there has been little progress around the EU EOM recommendations from 2018. Election watchdogs, like the Zimbabwe Election Support Network ZESN, a coalition of 37 non-governmental organisations, and the Elections Resource Centre, agreed that some of the critical reforms had not been addressed. The EU sent an Election Follow-up Mission in May 2022, which confirmed that progress on the implementation of the EU EOM recommendations has been limited, with most of the priority ones still needing to be adequately addressed. 

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, or ZEC, continues to enjoy notional independence because of its constitutional and legislative roots, but it has not been able to achieve structural and functional independence by freeing itself from unnecessary executive and partisan interference. Its credibility and people's trust in it remains low because of limited transparency around critical electoral processes. In the 2023 election, little transparency has been on display regarding delimitation; the release of the electronic voters’ roll; mapping and allocation of polling stations; civic education restrictions and delays; as well as security of the ballot, in ways that are confounding to the public. 

Away from the ZEC, reforms associated with equal access to the media and the public have yet to be fully implemented, and the campaign period has been rife with rally bans, disruptions, and limited access of opposition leaders to state-controlled media outlets. Legislative reforms around the Electoral Act to align it with the country’s Constitution have also been little and late, such that some reforms to the Electoral Act, which were only made in July 2023, will not apply to the 2023 election. In addition, political party financing and regulation of campaign financing are still inadequately legislated, despite recommendations around this in 2018.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on the electoral process in Zimbabwe?

The COVID-19 pandemic heavily impacted the 2023 elections and, in some respects, continues to do so. COVID-19 altered the nature of engagement and the execution of regular democratic practices associated with elections, through the institution of states of emergency and other types of restrictions on usual public and political engagement. In Zimbabwe, the government initiated a ban on electoral and political activities ahead of by-elections scheduled for December 2020 and suspended parliament business, increased the closure of democratic space, and impeded civil society organisations’ abilities to conduct activities between 2020 and 2022. 

Despite the electoral process being halted for two years on account of COVID-19, the 2023 elections have proceeded as dictated by the Constitution, without taking into account the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of the state, branches of government, political parties, and civil society to conduct "normal" election preparation work. The COVID-19-related restrictions halted any activities that advocated for or could institute electoral reforms, public and civic education on the right to vote, registration, and other electoral processes. The lax legal constraints on executive orders and an increase in surveillance also led to allegations that the Zimbabwean government "weaponized” COVID-19 to deal with perceived opponents and to close civic space under cover of COVID-19 restrictions, lockdowns, quarantines, isolation and curfews.

What about the war in Ukraine?

The war in Ukraine has had limited direct impact on the electoral process, but politically it has been polarising and used as a springboard to regroup and realign geopolitical interests and relations. Zimbabwe has ostensibly sided with Russia and strengthened relationships with that alliance in Eastern Europe. This position, which diverges from the general EU and Western position, complicates relationships and engagements in other areas, and despite the size of the EU delegation and an invitation to over 60 observer missions – some from the West, the involvement, especially in terms of technical support and assistance to political parties, has been limited in this election.

As large of a mission that the EU is sending to observe the elections this year is, its reach is ultimately limited. How best can the EU support efforts in Zimbabwe to ensure free and fair elections?

Outside local observer groups, it is difficult for any foreign mission to cover enough ground across the country. The best thing for the EU to do around the election-day period is to ally with local organisations. I already mentioned ZESN. There is also the Election Resource Centre and the Women in Politics Support Unit. In addition, there are other external observer groups like the Election Observation Missions of the African Union and the Southern African Development Community as well as the Carter Centre among others with whom to share information, perspectives and resources through an informal division of labour that can allow for more holistic coverage of the election. 

However, supporting Zimbabwe to get free and fair elections is not an event but a process, which covers the entire electoral cycle beyond election day. Observation is just one element that occurs within the election-day period. Still, the EU can also ensure adequate support to the ZEC, civil society, and other election stakeholders in pre- and post-election cycle periods. There, reforms can be sponsored and supported, and Zimbabwean society can start entrenching a culture around acceptable behaviours and conduct during elections.

The theme of this dossier is "The Elections We Want". What would you consider to be the most important contributions, mid- and long-term, that the European Union and other European actors could make, to ensure that Zimbabweans indeed get the elections they want?

The most important contributions that the European Union and European actors can make to assist us in getting the elections we want, both during and beyond the 2023 election, is to support mechanisms and initiatives that enhance transparency, trust and confidence in the electoral process, and to do so throughout the electoral cycle rather than only during the campaign and election phases.  

Part of this includes increasing support for civil society and other election stakeholders to be better placed in terms of technical capacity, to engage with an increasingly digitised and technical election process. This includes sharing technical expertise that can assist local election stakeholders in upskilling regarding the technical and technological elements of elections, including biometric registration; digital and online mechanisms of results collation; aggregation and transmission; and the use of GIS in various aspects of election processes. At the end of the day, stakeholders cannot monitor what they don’t understand. 

European actors also need to adopt a more deliberate influencing and advocacy role to push for early invitations, and to deploy Observer Missions that are long-term (up to 6 months) and well supported by strategic briefs that benefit from the 2018 and 2023 EU EOM’s operational insights and coordinates, and also to cooperate with other local and international missions to facilitate consensus around observation parameters and standards, which allow missions to use a similar/common lens for observation. Where observation is concerned, it will be important for future missions to incorporate and continue to trace critical recommendations from the 2018 and 2023 EU EOMs and its follow-up missions. These should be taken up by other EU and European actors, and used in other conversations and engagement processes that they have with state, and non-state, actors in Zimbabwe.

Ultimately, Zimbabwean elections are about Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans need to play a critical role in enhancing their elections. European actors can support them in achieving the elections they want through supporting efforts to build local commitment and action around non-violent elections, as well as efforts to push through meaningful reforms or amendments to electoral law and procedures. This can also include support for local civil society efforts to monitor the complete and correct implementation of electoral law, based on progressive amendments made in 2018 and 2023, and to monitor and engage with elections before, during and after election days. It also includes supporting efforts of Civils Society Organisations around long-term civic education and voter mobilisation efforts to encourage and increase trust in the electoral process, and voter turnout at national and local levels. European actors can help with the above by putting in place funding and support mechanisms that aid the access of Community Based Organisations, local organisations and social movements, to support election processes throughout the electoral cycle.