Zimbabwe’s shambolic yet defining elections
23 August 2023
Polling day is finally here. It’s a shambolic election; it’s a charade. It’s a disputed election. Showing lack of faith in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and the entire electoral process, everything has been litigated: delimitation report, voters’ roll, dates of election, nomination, nomination fees, statutory instruments gazetted for this election, accreditation of observers, printing of ballot papers – anything and everything. No doubt, the outcome will be litigated too. For the first time in years, we are headed into polls with a publicly divided ZEC – remember the 7 commissioners who wrote to the President and to Parliament distancing themselves from the delimitation report earlier this year?
Yet elections are so important in our constitutional democracy. We need them; we can’t discard them. So, I went to vote, and afterwards I played another civic duty, and this is what I came across.
Peace and quiet, as beautiful spring approaches
Many areas and polling stations were quiet and peaceful, even jovial. It’s a good atmosphere to exercise suffrage. But a caution: election-related violence often escalates after polling, in particular in the wait for results and immediately after announcement. This is what the history of the election cycles of the past two decades tell us. So, we must stay put and be vigilant. I hope violence is now a thing of the past – it is ugly!
The age of WhatsApp and Twitter
So much information is moving on Whatsapp in real time. It’s become the most important communication platform for this election. People are getting to know what is happening elsewhere as they are standing in the queues. There on WhatsApp, people encouraged each other to endure long hours of waiting for polling to start. Yes, distortion is also a reality but lots of credible and accurate information filters through timely.
Everywhere I went, I saw people glued to their phones on WhatsApp and Twitter, getting real time updates and discussing developments of the day. In the age of WhatsApp and Twitter, real news reaches people before the propaganda machine kicks in. What a blessing!
Intimidation: “Exit Polls”
At a number of polling stations, ZANU PF and/or FAZ set up what they termed “Exit Poll Survey Desks”, with uniform white material covering tables, bearing the party emblem. These were within 300m radiuses of the polling stations. At these desks, people could be seen taking ID numbers of voters and recording them. People would queue at these desks. Far from this being an “exit poll”, in many cases people were recorded before going in to vote. This was so brazen and in the open; open defiance to the law.
But thanks to mobile phones, videos were taken and shared on WhatsApp and Twitter. In some cases, citizens disrupted these exit polls and removed the people manning these. In one instance, citizens snatched the book FAZ was writing the names in, and even identified by name the people who were taking down voters’ details. What commendable bravery and citizen action!
In some cases, the police removed these exit poll desks and people. And this was not only in rural areas where the desks were set up; even at Courtney Selous Primary School in Harare’s Greendale suburb this desk was set up. In Bulawayo, David Coltart, a local council candidate for the main opposition CCC, took a video of a similar desk that was set up, with the people manning the desk covering their faces as in shame and embarrassment, and not wanting to be identified.
I must say though that I could not help but notice the demographic group that was queuing at these exit desks: these were older people. The young were not seen here. There is an observation to be made: it could be that these fear and intimidation tactics still grip the older, vulnerable and manipulable group. The young, not so much. Or that the young were absent from the polls?
Harare and Bulawayo are the traditional opposition strongholds. I think though this is shifting, and rural areas will shock many! ZEC issued a statement on polling day saying only 23% of polling stations in Harare started polling at the stated 7am. In Bulawayo 75% opened at 8.15am. In Manicaland it was 85%, but everywhere else it was 95%, with 3 provinces registering 100%. The pattern is clear. There were no local council ballot papers at most polling stations in Harare and Bulawayo. Some turned back home after some waiting.
ZEC blames litigation which led to delay in printing of ballot papers. But the pattern betrays them. This is voter suppression in urban opposition strongholds. The plan is to delay, get people agitated and frustrated, get people to leave, and get those still at home to receive the message that it’s not worth it to go to the polling stations. At my polling station, Belgravia Sports Club in Harare, we started voting at 9.20am – 2 and half hours after the scheduled time. Elsewhere, by 4.30 pm, polling had not started at Haig Park Primary School, Westlea and at Sanganai Tent, all in Harare West Constituency. At Sanganai Tent, the officials were not giving any updates to people who were waiting. People had to resort to speculation and asking each other, one frustrated voter told me. “It’s very concerning”, they said.
Then another dynamic: people could not find their names on the rolls posted outside polling stations. This happened at many polling stations. This was not due to the lack of being organised on the part of voters; people could not find their names at stations they have voted for years! “I checked the *265# ZEC platform, and it confirmed I vote at Alfred Beit Primary school, but I am here and I can’t see my name”, said a frustrated middle-aged male voter to me in Mabelreign. He was making his way out to check other polling stations. So, the online platform that voters check has been misleading. Others only got to know their new and unilaterally-assigned polling stations because someone saw their name there and told them. “My father did not vote. For the first time since 1980. He is extremely disappointed. His name miraculously disappeared on that very day it really mattered. His vote won’t count. How many suffered this very same fate? Atrocious!”, a colleague posted in a WhatsApp group. His father lives in Bulawayo.
Yet people endured; people stayed put. People showed determination.
In some stations, by midday there were very few people and people were voting smoothly. This was the case with many polling stations in Dzivarasekwa, Mabelreign, Chisipite and Avondale. People kept trickling in slowly. It seems the turnout is quite reasonable and perhaps good actually. We will know when the figures are out.
“Do not vote!!! Election is Stolen. Stay at Home”
Said the flyer that was thrown all over major cities the night before the election. People walk up to streets littered with these fliers. In Tynwald, in Waterfalls, in Bulawayo, in Greendale, in Belgravia, in Kambuzuma, in Mabelreign, everywhere. Some woke up and swept the fronts of their houses; some picked these up and destroyed them. These were propaganda fliers likely by FAZ and/or ZANU PF. CCC denied issuing this.
Now, these fliers are not surprising: autocrats know elections work and they don’t like them. Autocrats are scared of elections. Autocrats do not want huge turnouts; autocrats do not want people to believe in the efficacy of elections. Yet the message being sent is clear: elections work! These fliers were thrown in opposition strongholds, in Harare and Bulawayo mainly. Not in rural areas, thought to be ZANU-PF strongholds (and I opine that this is changing and shifting). This is part of voter suppression, to keep people from participation. This must be read as part of the pattern which include delayed commencement of voting in Harare and Bulawayo, and the general lack of voter registration mobilisation and voter education by ZEC, ZANU PF and the government. It was all calculated.
Ama 2000s stayed away. At my polling station, when I went to the desk where the age group was entered, I noticed that the majority voting group was 30 to 50. Those below 25 were negligible. This was not surprising. Every polling station I visited, Ama 2000 were conspicuous by their absence. This is concerning, but confirms our worries and fears. The majority of the young are aloof and have chosen disengagement as their mode of being. There is work to be done here. Yes, this is an election with almost 1 million more voters registered compared to the 2018 plebiscite, but it would appear this added 1 million constitutes less of the younger generation.
A moment in history
This election is a moment. It seems like a ceiling we have reached. All that could go wrong has gone wrong. So, what’s next? I think Zimbabweans will start demanding better and more credible elections. Leaders will be held to a greater standard. It’s a moment of change. People now understand rigging and electoral theft machinations. People now understand their duty. An anecdote: day before polling on 22 August 2023, afro-fusion artiste Selmor Mutukudzi posted on her Facebook page that she and her bag had just landed in London for a music performance. Oh boy, didn’t her followers register extreme displeasure in the comments for their “selfishness” and dereliction of duty by leaving before voting? I sent the link to the post to a couple of people; I was impressed with how people are now conscious of the importance of voting and how they were calling each other out!
Whatever happens, whatever outcome, this election is a moment in history and a defining one for that. The process towards change has just accelerated and moved many notches up!
Meanwhile, it’s a long many days before this election is over; let’s watch and be vigilant.
A citizen of Zimbabwe just seeing and hearing what is happening on election day.