The signing into law of the Electoral Act signals the disbandmentof machinery which political parties and civil society groups claim had formed the backbone of President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF vote-rigging.

But with shock-troopers who reportedly include soldiers, the militia and war veterans still at Mugabe’s disposal, many fear the electoral law changes are only one step towards fully dismantling the tightly-knit machinery to enablecredible polls.

Notwithstanding that the new law deals with many contentious issues such as the role of Registrar General (RG) Tobaiwa Mudede, who is now under the control of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec), violence on the ground remains a threat, stakeholders said.

But many things have also changed for the better, at least on paper.

While the voters’ roll has been a closely guarded document, kept under the hawkish control of Mudede, the new Act entitles election candidates to anelectronic constituency voters’ roll, while the national voters’ roll will be available to all in electronic formula at a reasonable price.

“Our objective is to ensure that elections are free and fair,” said Zeccommissioner and prominent law lecturer and researcher Geoff Feltoe.

“All the provisions are aimed at proper administration of the electoral process to make sure it runs smoothly, is transparent and works on the ground,” he said.

The Electoral Act, which Mugabe recently assented, brings a new complexion to the election playground, previously blighted by violence, late release of election results and electoral thuggery, stakeholders said.

Feltoe said the new law is an attempt to allay fears of electoral fraud.

“We are trying to improve the electoral process and we have in the Act a law that will ensure that we have free and fair elections. This law will make sure that the electoral process runs smooth,” said Feltoe.

Section 18 (2) of the Electoral Act provides that the RG is subject to the direction and control of Zec in registering voters. The Act also snatches the voters’ roll from Mudede’s armpit.

While it took a record 36 days to announce results of the March 2008Presidential elections amid accusations by the MDC that Zec, then led by High Court Judge President George Chiweshe was cooking up numbers, the new Act tries to plug this.

Reads section 29 (h) of the Act: “… a declaration by the chief elections officer shall be made not later than (i) five days after the polling day or last polling day, as the case may be, in the presidential election or runoff presidential election concerned.”

Section 21 (Cap.2:13) of the Act gives the electorate greater access to the voters’ roll.

Recently, a freelance journalist was arrested at the instigation of Mudede as he sought to inspect the voters’ roll.

The issue of ghost voters also seems addressed in the new Act.

While in the past, powers to remove deceased persons from the secretivevoters’ roll rested in Mudede, the Electoral Act introduces a new provision that would allow the constituency registrar to remove dead and disqualified voters from the roll on the basis of a sworn statement by a mother, father, sister, son, daughter or other direct descendent of the dead voter.

Letitia Kazembe, the Zec acting chairperson, said the law brought significant changes to the electoral environment.

“This Act will certainly have an impact on Zec operations because it changes the manner in which some of the processes are conducted,” she said.

“There are new provisions to deal with political violence and intimidation that involves other players like the courts,” said Kazembe.

Under the Electoral Act, candidates found guilty of perpetrating or promoting violence will be forced to drop out of the race.

“A court which convicts a person of an offence involving politically-motivated violence or intimidation committed during an election period, may, in addition to any other penalty it imposes on the convicted person, prohibit him or her from campaigning or taking any further part in the election,” reads a section of the Act.

Obert Gutu, an MDC senator and the deputy minister of Justice and Legal Affairs said the new law will make it difficult for electoral thieves to cook-up results.

“The new Act guarantees that polling will be ward-based as opposed to polling station-based,” Gutu said.

“This is very important, particularly in rural areas, where Zanu PF’s penchant for forcing villagers to vote for it is well-documented. It will be very difficult for village heads and other Zanu PF mandarins to literally force their subjects who to vote for and where,” said Gutu.

The MDC led by Welshman Ncube said the Act would make it difficult to rig polls but emphasised the need for a new constitution and the repealing of other repressive laws such the Public Order and Security Act (Posa).

“There are important clauses in the Act such as the demand for equal access to media and the introduction of polling station-based voting and this will certainly reduce the possibility of election rigging,” Qhubani Moyo, the party’s policy director said.

In previous elections, members of the police and army were forced to vote separately from the rest of the population and were supervised by their superiors, in a voting process which stakeholders condemned.

Each soldier or police officer was allegedly forced to vote for Mugabe under the supervision of commanders.

But under the Electoral Act, voting by police and defence forces away from their constituencies because of duty will happen in advance of the election at special polling stations established for that purpose under the control of Zec.

Feltoe, who is also a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, said political parties can now monitor voting by members of the uniformed forces who will vote 16 days prior to the actual voting date.

The 16 days limit will allow Zec to ensure that ballots will be posted to constituencies.

Innocent Gonese, the MDC chief whip in Parliament, said the new law removed the spectre of secret voting by soldiers and the police.

“This Act will give more transparency in the collating of ballots and will also ensure that soldiers and police officers who used to vote secretly are now monitored by all political parties,” said Gonese.

However, parties say the Electoral Act is only the beginning towards implementing an election road map that would ensure truly credible elections.

“The Act alone does not guarantee that the election will be free and fair,” Gutu said.

“There is a cocktail of other measures that have to be put in place. Pieces of legislation such as Posa and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) should not be abused and misused by the police in order to ban or curtail the activities of political parties other than Zanu PF,” Gutu said.

Without giving references, Feltoe said there was need to realign some laws with the new Act to ensure transparency. Zanu PF legislator and lawyer Paul Mangwana said the Act would “certainly” improve the electoral playing field but rejected assertions that Zanu PF used to rig elections.

“The new act improves the electoral system in so many ways such as the establishment of polling station-based voting,” he said.

Asked on whether Zanu PF used to rig previous elections, Mangwana said vote stealing “has always been next to impossible” in Zimbabwe because of the use of serial numbers.

“I have participated in the electoral process since 2000 and it is not possible to rig elections,” Mangwana said.

“Every ballot can be traced to a voter because they have serial numbers. No party is able to rig elections in Zimbabwe,” he said.

Mangwana, who is also a co-chairperson of the Constitution Select Committee (Copac) which is drafting a new constitution, claimed he was unaware that soldiers used to vote under supervision of commanders in previous polls.

(Source)