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After Elections, Hard Work Starts for Zimbabwe’s Civil Society

Teldah Mawarire is a campaigns and advocacy officer with global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.

Women activists in Zimbabwe have long demanded a fair share of power. Credit: Mercedes Sayagues/IPS

HARARE, Zimbabwe, Jul 27 2018 (IPS) - For many Zimbabwean voters, casting their ballots on July 30 is sure to be a somewhat surreal experience. For the first time since the country’s independence, the ever-present face of Robert Mugabe will not be staring back at them on the ballot paper.

But that new experience – while perhaps inspiring hopes for positive change among some – is likely to be preceded by an old, familiar feeling of déjà vu. The road to the 2018 general election has been littered with the same potholes of electoral irregularities and restrictive laws of previous polls.

And for Zimbabwe’s embattled civil society, the fact that none of the repressive laws that were used against them have been touched since a bloodless military coup eight months ago is cause for concern.

This vote is proving difficult to call. It’s not the first time the race has seemed too close to call for analysts and opinion pollsters. The 2008 poll posed the same dilemma. It later emerged that the opposition was cheated of victory and a government of national unity among the political opponents was later formed.

The latest survey released by think tank, Afrobarometer last month showed that the ruling Zanu-PF party would get 42%, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) 31% and the voting intentions of the remaining 26% of respondents were unknown.

Whilst these figures create the picture of a competitive race, it does not mean the conditions on the ground are favourable for a fair and credible election.

The incumbent Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former right-hand man and vice president who took power after the coup, is desperate for a win to rip off the “coup plotter’’ tag on his back.

The opposition, coming from a troubled and fractured past, have been re-energised by emergence of a more youthful leader, Nelson Chamisa and need a win badly to avoid being again relegated to the dustbins of ineffectiveness. The poll’s outcome will be highly contested and could spill over into the courts, if not the streets.

Zimbabweans have been concerned with electoral irregularities, particularly related to a voters’ roll that has not been made fully transparent, and issues concerning the validity of profiles of voters appearing on the roll.

Questions have also been raised around the independence of the poll’s administrators, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and allegations that the printing of the ballot paper was compromised and done without consultation with all contesting parties. Civil society concerns however, go beyond the administration of the electoral process.

Although there is a notable peace and an absence of the politically motivated violence that has hounded Zimbabwean elections since 2000, conditions impacting freedom of assembly, association and expression remain constrained by restrictive legislation.

Zimbabwe’s civil society at home and abroad have no time to rest after the historic election and must already be strategising on giving the next administration a timeline on intentions to open civic space.

Before the coup, CIVICUS Monitor, a tool that tracks threats to civil society in all countries, rated Zimbabwe’s rated civic space as a ‘repressed’. That assessment remains – just one step away from the worst rating: ‘closed’. The Democratic Republic of Congo currently the only nation in the Southern Africa Development Community region regarded as ‘closed’.

On the eve of the election, outstanding human rights issues remain largely untouched and unamended restrictive laws are yet to be aligned to the constitution the country adopted in 2013, remain active, casting doubt on the country’s ability to hold a truly credible and fair election.

This legislation includes the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which was used to persecute and harass journalists. Under AIPPA, it is compulsory for all media houses, foreign and local journalists to be registered with it with restrictive requirements and expensive costs. Even non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that produce publications for small or specialised audiences must be licensed.

Another law needing reform is the Broadcasting Services Act, which in its current form is an impediment to media freedom and the growth of independent media, and has been used by government for political interference in the news media sector.

While the political opposition has been largely able to assemble with less administrative and physical interference from security agents post-Mugabe, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) remains a huge concern.

Provisions that violate the right to assemble and protest such as protesters’ needing to give police four days’ written notice of an intended demonstration or the power of police to ban a gathering for three months if they believe it would endanger public safety, awkwardly remain.

NGOs will also have to work hard to have the law governing NGO registration and operations amended. The Private Voluntary Organisations Act (PVO) creates a web of bureaucratic red tape for NGO registration, which can take three months to a year Organisations that work to protect LGBTIQ rights are unable to operate openly and require specific legislation protecting their freedom to exist and operate.

It is also no secret that NGOs operating in rural areas at the district level have been routinely and illegally made to secure police clearance and sign a memorandum of understanding with the District Administrator to operate. This control over NGO activities has contributed to the strangling civic space in the rural areas.

And of course, there remains the glaring lack of protection for human rights defenders who have borne the brunt of brutal attacks under Mugabe. For the rights community, it has also not inspired confidence that there is still no meaningful investigation into the case of Itai Dzamara, an activist who disappeared on 9 March 2015.

Whichever way the election results swings, civil society has much work that is essential to holding Mugabe’s successors to the promise of opening civic space, so desperately needed in Zimbabwe.

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