Before President Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in on Nov. 24, he pledged to build a “new democracy” and committed himself to elections. Immediately following his swearing in, he announced that his government intends to move swiftly to national elections rather than to try to establish some sort of inclusive government. He also assured the public that the vote will be held between July 23 and Aug. 22, 2018, as originally scheduled.
It is highly unlikely that those elections will be fully free and fair, but we can work to make them significantly better than they have been in the past. A group of Zimbabwean civil society organizations have identified the most important reforms that are needed to make good on the promise of this transitional moment. Coming out of that process, it is clear that the following five changes are essential if the elections are to be credible.
First, we need to see the separation of the ruling party from the state. For too long, the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) has used the bureaucracy and key democratic institutions for its own interests. Most important of all, the ruling party should cease interfering with the workings of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. The ZANU-PF can effectively stymie electoral reform because the commission lacks true independence. As things stand, its decisions must be ratified by the Ministry of Justice, which remains under the control of the ruling party. The ZANU-PF can also manipulate the electoral system through its effective control of the personnel appointed to the commission.
Another massive problem is the way that the ruling party has manipulated traditional leaders to push its message and deny political space to the opposition. Chiefs need to be politically neutral — unlike in the past — for free and fair polls to occur. Patronage used to capture state institutions has rendered them weak and unable to discharge their roles in a professional, transparent and accountable manner.
Second, there must be a return to constitutionalism. This means that the new president must respect constitutional constraints on his power such as term limits and that the security forces must agree to respect the outcome of elections — and not seek to influence them — regardless of the liberation credentials of the successful party or candidates.
Third, human rights must be protected. It is essential that both the military and the ZANU-PF commit to this principle. Their failure to do so has been a constant problem in previous elections. We need to see an end to the intimidation of voters and the politicization of food aid and other services, especially in rural areas. The empowerment of independent constitutional commissions, such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, to investigate (and if need be, prosecute) human rights abuses in the future is also essential.
Fourth, the military has taken on a more prominent political role because of its removal of Mugabe and its installation of Mnangagwa in power. This needs to be swiftly reversed. A free and fair election can only happen under a civilian government. The military, therefore, needs to return to barracks and there needs to be a public commitment that all security forces, including the police, are meant to serve and protect all the people of Zimbabwe without fear or favor.
Fifth, these changes need to be effectively communicated so that ordinary Zimbabweans know that they can participate in the election without risking their personal safety. This means that the government needs to lead to peace and reconciliation, to acknowledge past wrongs, apologize to victims and persuade the population that similar things will not happen again.
We know — from the region and more widely — that electoral reform is not an overnight affair. Some of these changes will not be feasible in the months before the elections. But many can be done in just a few days.
The president should explicitly prioritize both electoral reform and national reconciliation and lay out paths for both. He should order the government to provide food aid and core services to all those in need. He should explicitly guarantee the right of all political parties to campaign freely without intimidation. And he should ban any interference by the military and police in electoral processes. Such measures require leadership, not legislation.
Within the electoral commission, those appointed to represent the interests of the ruling party must be removed and the commission’s independence cemented. This, too, does not depend on complex structural reform, but on political will. All too often the problem is not the constitution or the electoral regulations, but rather the failure to follow the rule of law.
The next few months will test the new regime’s stated commitment to a return to democracy. If we do not have a credible election in 2018 it will not be the fault of destiny. It will be because the government was not willing to make it happen.