July 5, 2004

New election standards to be adopted

President Robert Mugabe's government has agreed to adopt regionally accepted election standards - including translucent ballot boxes - in a bid to eliminate the need for western "imperialist" observers, the state newspaper Herald has reported. Mugabe's 26-member politburo agreed in a special session to adopt election guidelines drawn up by the 14 member Southern Africa Development Community ahead of the March 2005 general elections. The reforms were necessary because of "the intrusive behavior of the U.S. and European Union, who often declare elections not free and fair when the results are not in their political interest," the Herald quoted a politburo source as saying. Zimbabwe will seek regional approval for the new guidelines at the development community's summit in August in Mauritius, the report said.

International observers rejected the June 2000 parliamentary and March 2002 general elections, citing widespread intimidation and vote rigging. The President vowed not to allow Western observers to monitor future elections. "We will not allow the erstwhile imperialists to judge our elections. We ask our friends to judge us." Under the reforms, Registrar General Tobaiwa Mudede will no longer run elections, which will instead be overseen by a five member electoral commission. Elections will be held on a single day, not two or three as before. Translucent ballot boxes will used to prevent "stuffing," and counting will be done at polling centers rather than at a single, central location. A special court will be established to arbitrate all disputes within six months of the elections, the report said.

Parts of civil society have responded with scepticism to electoral reforms. "I am sceptical about the changes - how independent can the new commission [ZEC] be, when its chair is going to be appointed by the leader of a political party? In fact, the new commission will be less independent than some of its counterparts in the region," commented John Makumbe, a political analyst and chairman of the local chapter of the anticorruption NGO, Transparency International. Zanu PF's head of information, Nathan Shamuyarira, however confirmed that all the candidates nominated to sit on the commission, including its chairperson, would be proposed by parliament and not by the president. "The entire electoral process will [then] be handled by the new commission - we will have nothing to do with it," Shamuyarira said. Makumbe welcomed the fact that voting would now take place within a day, and that the new commission, to be funded by parliament, would be accountable to parliament.

Opposition leader Tsvangirai criticised the government-proposed electoral reforms by calling them cosmetic measures aimed at deceiving voters and poll observers. The proposals - including transparent ballot boxes and an independent election commission to supervise voting - were "still miles away from our needs," Tsvangirai said. The proposals met some opposition demands, but fell far short of guaranteeing a free and fair poll, Tsvangirai furthremore said. (AP / News24, South Africa / The Sunday Times, Johannesburg)

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