By Christopher Farai Charamba
With only a few days to go before Zimbabweans make their way to the polls to elect their political leaders for the next five years, the eyes of the of the nation and those observing are glued to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), whose mandate is to run this important election.
Disputes over previous polls and changes in the political landscape in the country, both in the ruling zanu-pf and the major opposition, now dubbed MDC-Alliance, have increased the stakes of this year’s election.
Not only is there the political weight of these elections, but there are also multiple firsts that ZEC has had to deal with.
These are the first elections to use biometric voter registration, the first to have a ward-based voting system, the first to have 23 candidates running for president, the first to have 55 political parties competing, et cetera.
For Zimbabweans, it will be the first in which they elect someone who is not Robert Mugabe to the presidency.
Who that person will be, shall be revealed after all the ballots have been cast and counted on July 30.
What is hoped for is that the will of people will be accepted and respected by all parties involved.
For this to happen, the electoral process must be deemed to be free and fair by the people of Zimbabwe and those participating in the polls.
How the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission conducts itself leading up to, during and after the vote is of the utmost importance. People need to trust the process and believe that their will, will not be subverted.
In this regard the scrutiny of ZEC has been at an all-time high. The chairperson of the commission, Justice Priscilla Chigumba who was appointed earlier this year, has promised to deliver a credible poll and has been on hand to engage with a number of different stakeholders.
ZEC released a roadmap in June, that outlined the steps and processes they were going to take from the time the election date was proclaimed till all is finalised after the vote.
This was necessary as transparency is a key component for their overall credibility. It is important for the commission to provide clear and timely information. While the individual’s vote is a secret, the process must be open to scrutiny for it to be trusted.
Unfortunately for ZEC, there have been mishaps that have led to people questioning their credibility.
Last week, there were allegations that surfaced on social media that police officers at Ross Camp in Bulawayo, who were issued with postal votes had been forced to vote in front of their superiors.
In his defence, he was right. But this still led to alarm, confusion and suspicion as it was evident that there was some form of voting taking place. ZEC later clarified that postal votes had been sent out in line with their timeline, but according to the law, they had no obligation to be there as this was to be done in secret.
But by then the damage had already been done. While ZEC had the law on their side, their failure was in relaying information to the public. The onus was on them to let people know that postal ballots had been sent to, where to and what the process was for postal voting.
All of these things are in the roadmap and can be found in the Electoral Act, but they needed to be packaged in a digestible way and one that coincides with the activities of the commission.
Communication is an important part of running a successful organisation and unfortunately this is where ZEC has come short. Their approach seems to be reactive rather than proactive and in doing so they have allowed political parties and commentators to frame the narrative with regards to this election.
It is clear that there are those with an agenda against ZEC, who seek to taint the image of the commission and ultimately invalidate the credibility of the July 30 election.
From the start, ZEC’s PR department, with a spokesperson, should up its game in handling all queries and statements made on behalf of the commission.
One of the problems they have faced is to have different people speaking on their behalf and at times giving information that seems to contradict each other.
ZEC should also engage in effective use of social media. This is an area where they have been caught on the backfoot and often respond late to issues that would have gone viral.
Monitoring what is taking place online and providing updates, clarifications and facts is a good way to stay ahead of issues and make sure that people are not creating a narrative for the commission which goes against what they are trying to do.
Additionally, ZEC should provide frequent updates as to their timeline either by Press statement or conference.
This election is one of the most significant political events in the country’s history and all wish for it to be success.
The body, whose duty it is to carry out the process should therefore be open and engage with members of the public to build trust in the commission, the process and ultimately the result.