Are some observers more equal than others?

Makonise Takavada
One of the defining features of Zimbabwe’s elections in 2018 is that, for the first time in nearly two decades, there are observers from around the world, as President Emmerson Mnangagwa has opened up the country for the world to witness the completion of the political transition in the country.
He says Zimbabwe has nothing to hide and, therefore, has extended an invitation to Western missions that had been shut out by the previous administration of Mr Robert Mugabe, whose rationale was that these missions usually came with preconceived ideas and prejudices against Zimbabwe.

Additionally, once they were on the ground, they could influence results or otherwise tamper with the process.

Whether this stance was justified or not is a matter for a separate discussion.

However, President Mnangagwa has taken a decision that could be anything between a pragmatic approach and a leap of faith.

Elections are coming in a fortnight.

The observers are here, in full force.

This warrants a discussion on the roles and duties of these critical stakeholders.

According to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, and other authorities, election observation is a process of information gathering or fact-finding aimed at reaching an informed judgment about the credibility, legitimacy and acceptability of the electoral process and its outcome.

Election observers will consider the various factors impinging on the credibility of the electoral process as a whole and to make a judgment whether or not the elections have been conducted according to the standards for democratic elections to which the country has committed itself, making reference to national election-related legislation and relevant regional and other international commitments.

Election observation is considered an important instrument for evaluating and assessing whether or not conditions exist for a free expression of the will of the electors.

It also examines whether the electoral process in any given country has been conducted in a free, fair, transparent and credible manner, including interrogating whether the election results reflect the electoral wishes of the people.

In addition, observation can assist a country holding elections to prevent, manage or transform election-related conflicts through impartial and timely reporting, as well as identifying strengths and possible weaknesses of the election process as a whole.

Reports of election observer missions will also contain practical recommendations to help improve electoral arrangements for the future.

Election observation is conducted by national, regional and international organisations and individuals, playing an important role in enhancing transparency and credibility of elections and the acceptance of the results.

In practice, election observation may be short-term, covering mainly the polling process.

It can also be long-term, covering all phases of the electoral process, including voter education, registration of voters, political campaigning and media coverage of elections.

Observer missions may deploy in advance of the polling process to assess the pre-election conditions and then later follow up with missions to assess the polling process itself.

Observer missions must perform their duties professionally and on a strictly non- partisan basis.

They are expected to prepare for such missions by familiarising themselves with the legal and regulatory framework for elections in the countries they would have been deployed.

They must not come with pre-conceived judgments relating to the electoral processes, but must fairly assess the electoral process.

They must refrain from actions that could lead to a perception of sympathy for a particular candidate or political party and must not wear any party symbols or colours.

In Zimbabwe, local and foreign observers must be accredited by the Accreditation Committee of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and will be bound to observe the Code of Conduct applicable to election observers.

In terms of the Electoral Act, an election observer commits an offence if he or she contravenes any of the provisions of the Code of Conduct.

A Zimbabwean election

The stakes are high in Zimbabwe. The country has been on the radar for the past two decades since it embarked on the land reform programme, setting it on a collision course with mainly Western countries.

This has largely been a historical-political question.

However, Western countries were quick to establish a moral high ground pegged on the pedestal of human rights, rule of law and free and fair elections, among other things.

Zimbabwe was found wanting in those indices — whether fairly or unfairly.

What was also critical was that in pure cynicism, the West would be ready to sponsor and receive hostile reports simply because they had not been allowed in.

It became a zero sum game.

On the other hand, for equally political reasons, the rest of the world — outside the West — and in particular Sadc and African Union, made sympathetic assessments of the Zimbabwean process.

They gave the elections a clean bill of health. It became another political football. The truth, therefore, existed somewhere in the middle.

Which makes 2018 interesting, as observers see for themselves on the ground — under very changed circumstances — and be able to come with something universally acceptable.

And the question is, are some observers more equal than others?

In principle, the answer is “No!”

However, there is scant doubt that many people will be watching what the Western groups will say and do.

That is, for better or worse, as the country seeks an acknowledged and legitimate process.

The dos and don’ts

Yet it will be important for all observers — of whatever colour and hue — to observe the laws of the country and respect our processes.

There should not be any sacred cows.

ZEC has a comprehensive Code of Conduct regarding election observation and the code provides that observers must obey laws. Here are some dos and don’ts:

  • An observer shall obey every lawful instruction of an electoral officer.
  • An observer shall not hinder or obstruct an electoral officer in the lawful conduct of his or her functions.
  • No observer shall wear any apparel spotting a prohibited symbol or apparel indicating any affiliation with a candidate or political party participating in the poll, nor in any other way canvass for any candidate or political party while observing the poll.
  • An observer shall at all times within a polling station, constituency centre or ward or council centre wear a badge or label bearing proof that he or she has been duly accredited in terms of this Act.
  • An observer shall not obstruct or accost any voter at a polling station or on his or her way thereto or therefrom, nor interview any voter at a polling station.
  • An observer shall not do anything which compromises the secrecy of the ballot.
  • If an observer considers that there has been any irregularity in the conduct of the poll or the counting of the votes, the observer shall bring such irregularity or apparent irregularity to the attention of the presiding officer or constituency elections officer at the polling station, constituency centre or ward or council centre concerned.
  • An observer shall, generally, conduct himself or herself in a manner conducive to the peaceful, dignified and orderly conduct of the poll.

 

Makonise Takavada is a Harare-based analyst and researcher.

 

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