HARARE – The process to compile a credible voter register ahead of the 2018 general elections has been thrown into disarray after authorities argued biometric voter registration (BVR) and voting is a luxury government cannot afford.
Zimbabwe is hoping thumbprint scans and voter cards with electronic bar codes will enable it to accurately register an estimated six million voters and eliminate the kind of fraud that has undermined previous elections.
An electoral roll riddled with fictitious names and omitting legitimate voters, combined with ballot-stuffing and intimidation, marred previous elections so badly that observers deemed them not to have been credible.
A tender for electronic voter registration kits — laptop computers, finger print scanners, cameras and printers — has been floated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and bidders shortlisted. After concluding the bidding process, government then announced three weeks ago that it was joining the process after pumping in $17 million, with Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa telling Parliament that the biometric system will be used during both registration and the actual voting process.
But Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) chairperson Justice Rita Makarau said only voter registration would be biometric not actual voting, and that the State Procurement Board would assist with adjudication in the process of procuring BVR kits, and have set March 20 as the date for site validation tests of the three top bidders being considered.
Now the official media — which reflects government thinking — is casting aspersions on the BVR process, saying it can actually be “a danger to democracy” because it is vulnerable to hacking and that advanced democracies such as France were ditching electronic voting.
While Zanu PF administration secretary Ignatius Chombo was not taking calls from the Daily News whether the ruling party was still keen on BVR, political commissar Saviour Kasukuwere said: “It’s an area covered by Chinamasa.”
Zanu PF secretary for legal affairs Patrick Chinamasa’s mobile was unreachable.
But authoritative sources said the issue was likely to be high on the politburo agenda today.
MDC spokesperson Obert Gutu said: “We saw this coming. Zanu PF will do everything within its power to scuttle the holding of free and fair elections. The crumbling and faction-infested Zanu PF regime has realised that a transparent BVR process will not play into their grand plan of stealing the 2018 elections.
“However, we will maintain pressure on this evil regime until Zimbabwe becomes genuinely democratic.”
PDP spokesperson Jacob Mafume said the remonstrations could be a trick to make the opposition think that the ruling party does not want BVR.
“As you know we have knee-jerk reaction to Zanu PF positions. But all dictators don’t like anything that improves the electoral field.
“If done properly, it can remove ghost voters. It is best international practice,” Mafume said.
An information officer at Heal Zimbabwe Trust, Rawlings Magede said it might be a trap being created “where they appear to dismiss the BVR on the pretext of costs which we know that it’s false.”
The Herald editorial comment said: “BVR is a luxury we cannot afford at the moment. Those mandated to come up with a clean voters’ roll can have a paradigm shift by thinking outside the box, because it is still possible to do so, at a cost that Zimbabwe can afford.”
Solomon Bizmack, an elections expert, said those saying BVR is expensive forget that democracy is expensive.
Finance minister Chinamasa appropriated a “meagre” $9,7m budget to Zec in the 2017 National Budget, an amount that falls far short of the $59,2 million requested by Zec.
“I solely need it (BVR) because it places premium on transparency and accountability in our electoral and democratic governance,” Bizmack said.
“Our elections are always contested on the basis of the voters’ roll, so this is an opportunity for a new roll.”
Magede said: “The sudden change and shift from BVR raises a lot of suspicion.”
Election Resource Centre (ERC) executive director Tawanda Chimhini, said the U-turn was disturbing given that State media has almost always dictated policy.
“This is an opportunity for Zec to pronounce itself on the matter and in so doing assert its independence in determining how elections are administered in Zimbabwe,” he said, adding the decision on how voters will be registered must be taken by Zec alone.
“Attempts by government and other actors such as the media to hijack what is purely the mandate of Zec is a blatant disregard of the constitutional independence of Zec and if Zec wants to be taken seriously, it must pronounce itself on the matter once and for all.”
By remaining silent, Zec was being “reckless”, he said.
A senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, Dewa Mavhinga, said the State media was doing a terrible job of trying to cover up the real reasons why the government would be opposed to the BVR system.
“It is not about cost, because international donors are ready to support that sort of thing, and when Zimbabwe was unable to fund its own Constitution-making process, donors stepped in and funded the process,” he said.
“What we have here is a fear that the BVR could prove difficult to manipulate in a context where the existing manual system has repeatedly proven to be vulnerable to manipulation and control.
“The real fear among some quarters is that the BVR system could level the electoral field and take away the rigging advantage that has existed for decades benefiting the ruling Zanu PF party.”
Commentator Rejoice Ngwenya said Zanu PF wanted to take away BVR procurement from Zec and opposition was mobilising popular resistance.
This comes after opposition political parties coalescing under the National Electoral Reform Agenda (Nera) banner have said they will on March 22 take to the streets in protest at government’s alleged hijacking of the procurement of BVR kits from the UNDP.
“Zanu PF is afraid of a clean voters’ roll. Why are they worried about the cost if UNDP is footing the bill?” Ngwenya said.