New voters’ roll: Too early to celebrate

Source: New voters’ roll: Too early to celebrate | The Financial Gazette October 19, 2016

By Nyasha Chingono
THE Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) is expected to begin voter registration under a new electronic system in June 2017, but observers warn that it may be too early  to start celebrating.
An estimated US$50 million is required to roll out the biometric voter registration system, which is quite a fortune for a country battling a severe liquidity crisis.
But given Zimbabwe’s long history of disputed polls, with most of the disputes stemming from manual voting system, opposition parties believe that ZEC should be prepared to pay anything to ensure democracy and free and fair elections.
The European Union, through the United Nations Development Programme, is happy to fund the whole project with the Zimbabwe government providing US$17 million in allowances for staff.
ZEC is now in the process of procuring the equipment and the kit so that by the time the country goes to the polls in 2018, it will be all systems go.
It will take about six months to capture an estimated 5,8 million eligible voters on the new roll.
Biometric voter registration systems are based on biometrics: A science that uses human biological features for purposes of identifying or authenticating the identity of an individual.
Biometric systems are intended to ensure a clean voters’ roll by eliminating ghost voters and multiple voting so as to deliver a credible election. Lack of political will to run free and fair elections has, however, always been cited as a stumbling block in Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe needs over US$30 million for 3 000 biometric units to be set up across the country in order to successfully conduct a voter registration.
The new biometric voter registration will be polling station-based in the hope of eliminating double voting and ghost voters that have in the past characterised elections.
The system will, however, come with its own challenges.
While an estimated 1 500 registered voters are able to cast their ballots at each polling station, the figure might strain the system.
The fingerprint is the most common biometric feature.
With examples of failed biometric systems from across the continent abound, Zimbabweans must be cautious as they embrace the new technology.
Nigeria’s biometric system failed to recognise faces during the continent’s most populous nation’s 2015 general elections, causing serious delays in the voting process.
There were numerous general malfunctions on the system that could be traced to vote rigging, common in many African countries.
In Ghana, biometric kits failed to function during the 2012 elections, leading to the extension of voting by another day.
In Kenya, the electronic tallying of results was marred by technical glitches, a situation that was also linked to suspected rigging.
Now for Zimbabwe, given the fact that the country has failed to complete simple projects on time, it beggars belief how it could successfully implement a sophisticated system such as this one.
Zimbabwe People First spokesperson, Jealousy Mawarire, was doubtful if a biometric voters’ roll would completely deal with rigging since it does not stop traditional chiefs from commandeering people to vote for a particular political party.
“This will not stop soldiers from intimidating people to vote (for a particular party),” said Mawarire.
Vote rigging in Zimbabwe takes many forms, which ZANU-PF has successfully exploited to its advantage in past elections.
In rural areas, food distribution is commonly used by ZANU-PF officials to sway the vote. Most villagers would rather trade their vote for a bag of maize than starve to death.
Mawarire said opposition political parties should continue fighting for the demilitarisation of ZEC, which the commission’s chairperson, Rita Makarau, said was not possible.
“The parties are arguing that members of ZEC, who were formerly military personnel, should be fired; but they have contracts of employment. We need valid reasons why we should terminate their contracts because we are a country that abides by the rule of law,” argues Makarau.
Movement for Democratic Change secretary general, Douglas Mwonzora this week said there would never be free and fair elections in Zimbabwe, if ZEC has military influence.
“Their argument does not hold water since the people we are talking about received a command not to support anyone with no war credentials in 2002. So as long as they are there they will continue to carry out (President Robert) Mugabe’s mandate,” said Mwonzora.
He said the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA) would monitor the purchasing of the biometric kits and registration, among the processes that lead to elections.
NERA is demanding the removal of ZEC officials who have military background as part of the electoral reforms that would necessitate a free and fair election, but analysts say ZANU-PF will not reform itself out of power, hence such demands will not be granted.
Analysts this week said Zimbabweans should not be fooled into believing that the new system would ensure free and fair elections.
They said polling station based voting can be used to intimidate people into voting for the ruling party given the limited people allowed per polling station.
Zimbabwe Elections Support Network national director, Rindai Chipfunde, said polling-based intimidation was likely to increase due to the new system.
“ZEC needs to assure the public and put in place mechanisms to ensure that the past challenges of intimidation are dealt with because this could create serious problems,” Chipfunde said.
“Biometric voter registration is not a silver bullet and there is need to address issues affecting ZEC’s independence, which could earn it trust from stakeholders in conducting electoral processes. The process alone is insufficient to address the shortcomings such as the lack of transparency,  inaccessible voters’ roll and results management,” added Chipfunde.
Political commentator, Vince Musewe, said Zimbabweans should not rely entirely on the technology, but other monitoring mechanisms to ensure a free and fair election.
“We must not overestimate this technology because it can also be flawed. We must have a new value system of how elections are run in this country.
“We know that the rural folk are heavily misinformed and this technology may be used to intimidate them so we need to have checks and balances when we talk about this technology,” said Musewe.
“The institutional architecture mainly used to rig elections is the one which needs change. Technology will not ensure a free and fair election. A new value system is more important than the process itself,” Musewe added.