By elections in Zimbabwe: Why we need new Electoral Laws to cover contingencies relating to push

By Rawlings Magede

In 202O, Health Minister Constantino Chiwenga through Statutory Instrument (SI) 225A (Public health COVID -19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment Regulations) suspended the holding of by-elections, while the ban has been challenged in court, the outcome is still pending with arguments that have been used to challenge the ban include Section 159 of the constitution that requires vacant elective public offices to be filled within 90 days and the lack of extensive multi-stakeholder consultations with citizens, Parliament, political parties, the academia as well as civil society and other key stakeholders.

In my view, the bigger conversation or argument should be that our electoral laws are defective as they do not cover contingencies relating to pandemics and other emergencies. Just as John Nkengasong of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has argued that “covid-19 will not be the final pandemic to challenge the world as more pandemics will emerge in the future”. In light of this, it becomes imperative  that serious planning occurs to ensure greater preparedness for the next outbreak, as scientists have noted that pandemics are likely to be more frequent in the future as a result of the environmental damage caused by human activity.

The world has always struggled containing pandemics!

Europe first declared “war” on cholera in the 19th century. It didn’t defeat the disease in the short term but struggled putting it under control. In 1918, influenza emerged from a real war and swept the world unchecked by either policy of medicine. Forty years ago, AIDS challenged the confidence of medical science and it is still with us today but we have learned to live with it, chiefly because of community activism and emancipatory politics.

Closer to home, Zimbabwe has over the years failed to control diseases such as cholera though the disease continues to pose challenges owing to issues of unsafe water, citizens have adapted by using chlorine for drinking water. The same approach can be adopted to tackle covid-19 in the long term.

Drastic measures such as banning of by–elections are not only desperate but expose government’s lack of a proper disaster risk reduction strategies during pandemics.

What needs to be done going forwad?

A starting point will be to update our electoral laws to better cover all contingencies relating to pandemics and other emergencies. Without clear laws designed to deal with contingencies, banning of elections becomes inevitable especially if it threatens public health. The banning of elections in Zimbabwe has also has its own controversies.

It came at a time when serious fissures within a fragmented opposition saw a number of legislators loyal to MDC Alliance President Nelson Chamisa were recalled by the Douglas Mwonzora led faction. The recalls clearly have been instrumentalised for political gains as there seems to be no valid reason why by-elections remain banned especially after relaxation of lockdown measures.

As the debate on the ban of by-elections rages on, the 2023 elections are fast approaching and in my view the idea is to delay ruling on court cases until such a time when it would not make much sense for the electoral body to conduct elections a few months before the 2023 plebiscite. Citizens who voted for representatives of their choice right from council to parliament are the biggest losers in all this.

Democracy entails that citizens elect representatives who propose and vote on legislation or policy initiatives on their behalf. Their right to elect representatives of their choice has been mutilated as political dithering and stratagems win the day.

Secondly, since government’s resources have been mostly channelled towards the fight against covid-19, plans for emergency budgetary support for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) must be put in place to allow the holding of elections during disasters.

Another solution will be to minimize or put in place measures aimed at reducing the number of voters who travel long distances to cast their vote but in our case it is not applicable given the challenges with our electoral democracy. In my view, by-elections will not pose a great risk to the spread of covid-19 given that only a few constituencies have been affected by the recalls. One sure way of getting this done will be to implement the simplest measures for preventing the spread that require a large amount of public compliance such as wearing of masks and social distancing.

Widespread compliance with election related protocols can be boosted if the public understands the risks associated with the pandemic and why the protocols are important in reducing transmission.

In the final analysis, the banning of elections by Minister Chiwenga who is also the Vice  President of this Zimbabwe was not only premature but greatly expose gaps within our electoral laws to deal with contingencies relating to pandemics and other emergencies such as covid-19.

A useful approach to deal with the issue of pending by-elections was not to abuse a statutory instrument to mutilate electoral democracy but to establish a mechanism such as an inter-party advisory committee on elections. This committee which will be compromised of representatives of various political parties can then consult their constituencies and devise measures that ensure that Section 169 of the constitution that provides for the filling of electoral vacancies is upheld.

Rawlings Magede is a Developmental Practitioner who writes in his personal capacity.

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