ZEC poll management has improved: Official

The Interview with Tichaona Zindoga

Zimbabwe this week held its historic election, culminating in President Mnangagwa being declared winner of the presidential polls, while his party, zanu-pf won two-thirds majority in the House of Assembly over MDC-Alliance led by Mr Nelson Chamisa. Here, Mr Utoile Silaigwana (US), ZEC’s Acting Chief Elections Officer, discusses with The Herald’s Political Editor, Tichaona Zindoga (TZ).

TZ: First of all, you have been involved in elections in Zimbabwe for quite some time now and the 2018 elections had a lot of issues around them. Can you just tell us the difference between this year’s leg of elections and previous ones that you have been involved in?

US: Thank you very much. You know elections are a growth area and each election is different because the players are in form of candidates for contesting parties. And in terms of the numbers; they are also different, but what I’m saying is that each election is different and as an election management body, we learn from our past elections on where we can improve.

So on the 2018 elections I think we have improved significantly as an election management body in terms of professional management of polls, and also in terms of one of the key issues that I can also point out on where we have improved a lot compared to previous elections. As stakeholder engagement, our stakeholder engagement has been quite high, starting last year before we even introduced the new Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system that brought us a new voter’s roll. The commission has been engaging stakeholders throughout, and these stakeholders are various political parties, civil organisations, faith-based organisations and other ordinary people and several different groups. So we have improved significantly.

TZ: In the run-up to this particular election, ZEC was accused of many things among them alleged partiality towards certain players and even things like logistics regarding the printing of ballot papers. Now that July 30 did come and go, how do you reflect on the conduct of the poll?

US: Elections have a lot to do with perceptions, but as an election management body we try to work around that by conducting our elections in terms of the prevailing electoral law. I think the criticisms were not based on the existing electoral law which is a weakness in my view for any political player to come into a game where you don’t read and understand the rules of the game.

The rule of the game in election management is very clear in the Electoral Act, and the Constitution gives ZEC the mandate for the procurement of all election material, including the procurement of the ballot paper, the designing of the ballot paper and the custody of the ballot paper. It is all the mandate of the ZEC in terms of the law. Because I have talked about perceptions ZEC actually went beyond what the law provides by for example inviting all those who were participating in 2018 elections were invited to explain the processes. Above that, they were also invited to the printers to observe the printing process.

ZEC even went further; I know there was a controversy around the ballot paper with some mythical thinking and suspicions and things like that, that do not exist. So the commission went further and say okay before we even print the ballot paper each political party that was participating in the 2018 elections was given the ballot paper sample to show them that this is exactly the paper we are going to print. They were taken to Fidelity Printers where we were printing the ballot paper for the presidential election and the National Assembly. As a way to further engage and enhance transparency the electoral commission was not hiding anything. After designing and printing the ballot paper, the commission also went further to give the political parties the real ballot paper that was used during voting on the 30th of July. So you can see that as a commission, we try to build trust and went well beyond what the law provides.

TZ: But there are some residual matters in terms of transparency and we also heard other observer missions encouraging you to open up more in terms of transparency and stakeholder management. What are the areas that you think you might want to improve on in the next five years?

US: Well, I think the first thing is that the law is clear on what ZEC is supposed to do, and if by any chance as it seems with other political parties, they may not be happy with certain provisions of the law, but really it is not up to ZEC change that law. The ZEC can only make a recommendation to the political parties themselves through their representatives in Parliament to lobby for the change of the law and ZEC will religiously follow the law as provided by the Legislature.

I know that more often than not people think that ZEC can simply do electoral reforms, no it’s not for ZEC to do electoral reforms, it’s for the legislature to do electoral reforms and then say: ‘ZEC here is what the law says’ and then ZEC needs to follow that law.

If ZEC does not follow the law then anyone can take ZEC to task. You see, why am saying ZEC has gone beyond the law to try and build trust and accommodate the interests of political parties, but sometimes if the law does not require ZEC to do that someone can actually challenge ZEC and say ‘on what basis are you doing that’, so you can see ZEC went out of their way. But then in areas of voter registration, more often than not some of the criticism levelled against ZEC is because of lack of voter education, ignorance of the law and lack of understanding of the process. So I think that area needs improvement.

We will appeal to the State to continue funding ZEC, so that we can improve on voter education. We want also to be aware because it’s an area that is very strong. What the electoral commission did was to rope in the civil society and faith based organisations. I think for the 2018 elections we had more than 70 civil society organisations and faith based organisations whose applications to conduct voter educations we approved. But you would also find that sometimes we get quite a number of civil society organisations applying to do voter education, we then say okay we approve, but they come back and say ‘give us the money’. You know it cannot be like that, so I think it’s an area for improvement.

In terms of election management, the technical aspect of election management I will honestly say we are doing well. I think I can confirm that from some comments that we get from many observers who were on the ground technically managing the process, saying they were highly impressed. In Ndebele they say “ukufunda haupele” you will keep on learning and improving and will keep on improving also by looking at other EMBs. We are a member of the Electoral Commissions Forum of SADC countries, so we interact with them, particularly for this election; again in the area of training our staff.

We requested the AU to assist us to improve our training and, indeed, they responded to our request, and we trained our provincial electoral officers and their deputies. All the 63 district officers; we trained them with the African Union technical team and then they cascaded the team to the wards and constituencies, hence, we are getting good results in terms of that. As I am saying every election is a new election, it is different from another, therefore, we need to keep on improving.

TZ: From the preliminary reports of observers that were here for this exercise, it would seem the majority made strong commendations on your handling of the process. However, are you not worried that the story has now been sullied by the chaos we saw midweek as a protest led to violent clashes?

US: It is very regrettable that we had such an incident on the 1st of August, after we had started announcing results and such an incident took place. It is regrettable and worrying, definitely because you want to find the reason why it was done like that; whoever incited violence leading to loss of life. May the souls of those who lost their lives rest in peace!

It is regrettable and unnecessary for anyone to incite violence. You know democracy is about contestation for power, but that contestation must be done within the terms of the law. While you are rightfully saying that most of the observers are giving us a thumbs up, this can probably dent our election.

Our appeal as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is to the citizens of Zimbabwe. Voters to me are more important than political party, the vote is for the voter not for the political party. It is important for the voters not to be misled by some political parties because what we need to do is, that is why I pointed out to the area of improvement that is voter education, so that people can at least understand the process.

If you can allow me to take this opportunity to explain some of the things that political parties are deliberately taking advantage of ignorance, if I may use the word, of some people in the process of matrixes leading to the announcing of the results. You know we heard a lot of political parties knowing very well that were are saying things that are wrong like saying ZEC is delaying with the results. But look in terms of the law we are supposed to release the results in five days, but released all the results in four days, way before the expiry period as given. And again particularly on the election of the President, you know the presidential election is slightly different from the constituency and council elections in two aspects.

Firstly, the members of Parliament and councillors are elected on the First Past the Post electoral system, but the presidential election is held on a majoritarian rule, which is 50 percent plus one vote. So now in the counting of the council elections the counting is done at the ward level and the declaration is done at the ward level. The counting for the Members of Parliament for the constituency elections is also done at the ward level and it is also collated at the constituency level and it is done there and declared there.

So in other words what we do at National Results Centre when we tell the nation who won in this constituency. It is actually an academic exercise, because that declaration is done at the constituency level. So it means, because they would have done the counting and collation and declarations, those results are faster to come here because they have finished complete results, but for presidential collation at any other place except at national results centre where the chief election officer is the presiding officer to say for the presidential election. Therefore, you would find that it means all the information that would be coming from all the polling stations. I am referring to the return forms popularly known as V11s, all of them, for example, we had 10 985 polling stations it means we had to bring 10 985 V11s forms and the 1 958 V23 forms, which are the ward collation centre and also constituency collation documents here at the national results centre where counting and collation will then start. So it is practically impossible for the election of the council and Members of Parliament to be declared on the same day, because these ones are done at a smaller scale.

So that when the political parties now misinform the generality of our citizens to say that the results are delayed, they are not delayed at all because this is the one constituency and all the country has done here, I thought that was important for our people there to understand, so that when a political part says no ZEC has delayed, our people must be able to say no ZEC has not delayed. We can only also only talk about delayed elections if ZEC has gone beyond five days before announcing the presidential elections. I think that’s very important.

TZ: Now, one of the contestants in the presidential election Mr Nelson Chamisa is rejecting the results, where does it place you as ZEC?

US: If I can comment really it is regrettable because we have been hearing these statements by the same party saying that if the elections didn’t go our way we will reject the results. So it was expected. That behaviour was expected. Let me say this very clearly, I think our nation is to understand this: The presidential election collation is done at the national result centre, which is where we are. Before we collate and announce the results of the presidential election we as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and as provided for in the law, invited all the chief election agents for all the contesting candidates, including the MDC Alliance, and I can categorically say that the MDC Alliance heeded our call; responded positively to our invitation to come and observe the process here.

We had two of them, Mr Morgan Komichi and Mr Jameson Timba. They were here from the first day we received the V11 and the V23 forms from the constituencies. They were with us throughout and I can vouch that I personally assisted them to give them the copies of our V11s.

I said to them ‘This is where we do our collation’. First they were taken around and it was explained to them what happens in the collation room. I personally happened to be there by the time they were taken around, and I personally demonstrated to them that we display the V11 forms and any other documents that come from any other constituencies.

Here they are and I said to them you are allowed to make notes. And, indeed for the three days they were here throughout. I think the day before yesterday (on Thursday) when I entered the collation room around 3 am, I didn’t find them. Then I was told that Timba left around 2am, then I said, ‘It’s good because they were here throughout’. So, they have been here throughout.

The other national agents for 22 political parties came in and out. They did not stay like the MDC Alliance representatives did. We were with them throughout. So, yesterday we also informed them that before we announce the results we will give you the forms that the chief election officers are supposed to fill so that you sign.

In fact, before I even approached them to invite them, Mr Morgan Komichi came to me and said, ‘When are you giving us the forms of the results?’ and I said, ‘Give me a minute I am preparing the form’.

Before we announced the final results, when I came with the form I could not find him. Probably he had mingled with the rest of the journalists at the results announcement room. So when he came out of the results announcement room, I then gave him the form and I said to him, ‘Mr Komichi here is the form; it’s ready for you to sign.’ Then he said, ‘I am not going to sign.’ then I said, ‘Oh but this is what you have been waiting for!’ At that time he had about three other guys, but Timba was not with them. The other guys then persuaded him to take the form.

So, I hear that they then moved on to the stage. That was unnecessary, completely unnecessary because that part of the stage was where the (ZEC) Commissioners were and announcing the results. I don’t understand why that behaviour was displayed. It was unexpected of him (Mr Komichi) as a senior member of a political party.

It was uncalled for. He wasn’t supposed to do that, because by so doing they are deceiving, not only the nation and the world at the last minute to say, ‘No we are not agreeable to the results. And for the past three days they were in the collation room, and they never raised a single objection. Not even at one time did they say they objected to the results.

In fact, I even said to them, ‘Look you had representatives or you had representatives and agents also at all the polling stations, and you had agents at the ward centres and at constituency centres. Those agents where given the same documents we are using here if you want to bring it and compare it’s up to you.’ Whether they heard it or not I am not sure. It’s another thing. So honestly, to go on stage and say to the world, ‘We don’t agree, these are fake results’, is regrettable. That behaviour should be condemned, because it might incite people to get violent. It is inciting behaviour in my view, because the Commission has authentic results. And it has invited these agents, and the two gentlemen were initially camped in the collation centre until the last minute. When we finished collating the results they were there, then they suddenly turn and say, ‘We have not seen the results’. I think that’s being irresponsible.

What I can say at the end is that as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission we urge our citizens; our peace-loving citizens, to accept the outcome of the election results. And we also urge those who are not agreeing with the outcome of their results to use the right channels of law; that is the electoral court of law.

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