One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Constitution-Making and Voter Education in Zimbabwe

by | May 24, 2013

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Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast|Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

By Obert Hodzi

Over the past decade, Zimbabwe has been characterised by political turmoil and economic meltdown that resulted in dollarization and abandonment of the country’s currency in 2008. After the disputed and violent elections of March and June 2008, political parties in Zimbabwe entered into a Global Political Agreement (GPA) to address the challenges facing the country. Article VI of the GPA provided that the government of national unity, comprising of the Zimbabwe African National Union –Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), would set up a Parliamentary Constitution Select Committee (COPAC) to facilitate the drafting of a new constitution. The constitution drafting process that ensued for the next four years was dominated by inter-party political bickering. In January 2013, after spending at least $50 million, COPAC produced the final draft of the constitution, leading to a constitutional referendum held on 16 March 2013.

Despite the fact that the draft constitution represents a compromise between the major political parties, more than 95% of voters approved it. Over the first two weeks of May 2013, the House of Assembly and the Senate unanimously approved the draft constitution with minor amendments. The Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 20) Bill was signed into law by the President on 22 May 2013.

However, if the new constitution represents a small step forward for Zimbabwe, the voter registration process for the constitutional referendum was fraught with problems. As the draft constitution was approved, civil society activists played running battles with police due to allegations that they had engaged in illegal voter education. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) struggled to implement their mobile voter registration campaign due to poor publicity, lack of voter education, meagre financial resources and logistics and personnel problems. Hundreds of potential voters were turned away for not possessing relevant documents, in particular proof of residence which is required to register as a voter. In addition, aliens were denied registration even though they possessed Zimbabwean identity documents. Meanwhile, human rights activists and other political parties such as MDC-T complained that the Registrar General neglected areas known to be non-ZANU-PF strongholds in an effort to systematically disenfranchise its potential supporters from registering as voters.

Before the election, as ZANU-PF launched and implemented its door-to-door voter mobilisation campaign, the Officer Commanding Harare Sub-Urban Region also banned all other political parties from conducting door-to-door voter mobilisation campaigns arguing this measure was necessary to curb political violence. Weeks before this pronouncement, MDC-T officials and Election Resource Centre voter education volunteers had been arrested for impersonating government officials and providing voter education without the approval of ZEC.

The new Constitution provides for a further 30-day voter registration exercise, which according to the cabinet will be undertaken before the next elections are held. Yet, regardless of the legal provisions of the constitution, the politics surrounding the constitutional approval process are not encouraging. For example, the ban of door-to-door voter mobilisation was not based on any legislation but was a police decree. In the past, ZANU-PF has used police decrees to apply the law selectively and persecute non-ZANU-PF supporters. In addition, the leadership of state security institutions have already declared their support to ZANU-PF contrary to the non-partisan constitutional mandate. Constitutionalism therefore remains a critical challenge to Zimbabwe.

Obert Hodzi is a governance and post-conflict development specialist working at an international non-governmental organisation in Zimbabwe.

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