Too little, too late voter education
… as ZANU-PF continues to harvest from fear
THE run-up to last month’s by-elections served as yet another sad reminder of how the culture of violence and other forms of intimidation have permeated Zimbabwean society.
With security agents deployed to the voting constituencies and fear rife among the people, indeed neither freedom of expression nor freedom of association could be enjoyed by the affected citizenry. Never mind that these are both rights enshrined in the Constitution.
Neither the State nor the ruling party could guarantee both protection and the upholding of these rights.
Since the turn of the century when the ruling party started feeling the real threat of opposition political parties, violence and intimidation around election time have been commonplace, with fear wreaking havoc in constituencies particularly in the rural areas and high density suburbs.
With terror reigning supreme and people trying to “successfully” toe the line in order to save themselves and their families, the governing administration has continued to reap harvest of fear.
While it cannot be denied that there are considerable numbers of people, particularly in the rural areas, who swear by ZANU-PF, it also cannot be overlooked that some dwelling in these areas, if they were free to do so, would vote differently.
One of the enablers of voter suppression, according to the president of Voice of the People party, More precision Muzadzi, is that many Zimbabweans are not politically savvy.
“Zimbabweans are politically illiterate,” said Muzadzi, adding that voter education becomes critical to enlighten the population on democracy, citizens’ obligations, responsibilities and rights in elections.
Rindai Chipfunde Vava, national director of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), concurs that voter education was critical.
“Voter education is essential for people to meaningfully exercise their right to vote which encompasses: Knowledge of the registration process and requirements; inspecting the voters’ roll to verify accuracy of one’s details; voting requirements and polling; and, more critically, making informed electoral choices,” Chipfunde Vava said.
She added that voter education should particularly focus on people in the rural areas who are mostly prone to forced voting.
“People in rural areas are prone to intimidation and threats hence the need for them to be empowered with information so that they exercise their rights and choices without fear,” Chipfunde Vava said, adding: “We observed the continued use of intimidation in recent by-elections and so it needs interventions soon in the form of voter and civic education to mitigate the effects of forced voting.”
The main reason why most people in the rural areas do not have sufficient information about elections and the related processes is mainly because of their lack of credible sources of information.
“It is critical that people in rural areas are targeted because their sources of credible and unbiased information are limited as compared to urban areas. In remote rural areas, traditional leaders are the only source of information and these are mainly used by political parties to intimidate and provide partisan information. It is thus important to provide voter education in rural areas in order to allay and demystify fears associated with elections in general and voting in particular,” Chipfunde Vava explained.
ZESN and its affiliate members, in the last by- elections, as in other elections before these, continues to be concerned with the number of voters turned away or disenfranchised from voting on various grounds.
“The large number of people turned away for (various reasons, including) being in the wrong ward, assisted voters and lack of proper identification, is also an indicator of lack of adequate voter education,” Chipfunde Vava said.
Lawton Hikwa, a political analyst, also believes lack of information creates a conducive atmosphere for fear to be bred and harvested.
“The fear factor is a consequence of an ill-informed electorate,” Hikwa said. “If the electorate was knowledgeable about its guaranteed rights it would have capacity to also confront elements that cause the fear factor, whether real or imagined.”
“We need to constantly educate people on the secrecy of the ballot,” said Jacob Mafume, spokesperson for the Movement for Democratic Change Renewal Team.
Because many of the rural folk neither understand nor appreciate that their vote is their secret, they often fall prey to fears that their vote would be known or should be known by others as such this feeds into the terror frenzy that reigns supreme during election time.
But while calls for voter education have grown shrill over the years, some bottlenecks hamper the implementation and effect of the same.
According to Chipfunde Vava, challenges on the ground that prevent the enlightenment of the electorate include: Lack of continuous voter education; lack of multi-sectoral stakeholder participation in voter education; the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)’s cherry picking of organisations who conduct voter education; prohibitive legal framework, for example, no foreign funding is allowed for purposes of voter education; as well as limited funding and/or prioritisation of voter education programmes.
“ZEC is responsible for voter education but invites interested and trained organisations to conduct voter education, however, due to limited time and funding not all invited organisations are able to conduct meaningful voter education,” Chipfunde Vava said.
ZESN has called for a legal review to open and conduct voter education by all interested players and give ZEC responsibility only for voter information which is done once a proclamation for an election is done.
An ideal situation would be for voter education to be continuous. Election after election there are some interventions which are hardly adequate and often come far too close to the elections and in too little time.
Although civil society organisations have raised their ire over this, their concerns are still to be addressed by the powers-that-be.
“ZESN and other civil society organisations use the electoral cycle approach and so voter and civic education should be a continuous and comprehensive process not just an event to be done when elections are around the corner,” Chipfunde Vava noted.
Hikwa said with more people coming of age and others dying, such demographic factors made continuous voter education essential.
“Voter education is indeed critical in our country given the reality that on a daily basis we have people coming of age as potential voters. Similarly, others die creating the need for them to be removed from the voters’ roll. (Also) we need as many organisations as possible to carry out voter education. Overally, it should be an ongoing process, otherwise areas facing by-elections may need it more,” said Hikwa.
A cursory look by the Financial Gazette showed that currently very little or no voter education is taking place at all.
Although ZEC could not be reached for comment, the Financial Gazette understands that to its credit, the electoral body is currently assessing its capabilities in voter education and is engaging stakeholders on how voter education could be improved.