The outcome of Zimbabwe’s presidential election this coming weekend could rest on how many people are prevented from voting, civil rights groups warn.
They believe that the government’s election strategy is based on disenfranchisement of the urban areas - perceived as pro-opposition – and control of the voting process in the rural areas, which holds the majority of the constituencies.
"The rate of voter turnaways – that could be the secret of (the ruling party) ZANU-PFs victory," lawyer Taiwanda Hondora told IRIN.
The legal window for potential gerrymandering was introduced on Friday by Justice Minister Patrick Chianamasa. Using emergency powers, he reintroduced the General Law Amendment Act that was set aside by the Supreme Court in a 4-1 ruling last week.
Among those regulations are stiff residency qualifications linked to the right to vote. When people turn out to cast their ballots on 9 and 10 March, in addition to their identification cards, they will be asked to produce proof of residency such as an electricity or rates bill.
The great majority of urban people are poor, living in "illegal structures", and renting their accommodation. Bills are not in their names, explained Hondora.
He added that residency could be verified by an affidavit, "but that hasn’t been made public". As a result, "a lot of people will be disenfranchised".
A Supreme Court decision also reaffirmed that people must vote in the constituency in which they registered. That means people who have been displaced by political violence are expected to return to the homes they fled to cast their ballots.
According to the Amani Trust, which provides counselling services to people affected by political violence, there were more than 42,000 reported cases of displacement in 2001. Other estimates, which include the violence surrounding the 2000 legislative election, put the figure much higher.
Ambigious "citizenship" requirements would also remove people’s right to vote if their parents were not born in Zimbabwe. This could affect tens of thousands of farm labourers whose families originally came from neighbouring countries and have been hard hit by land reform. An estimated one million Zimbabweans living abroad are also to be excluded.
In the rural areas, local chiefs and headmen are expected to vouch for a person’s place of residence. But the traditional authorities are the base of the government’s influence in the countryside, political scientist Janah Ncube told IRIN.
"Residency is proved through the chiefs, at the same time there is the politicisation of the chiefs," said Hondora. "It is an obvious attempt to influence the election result."
Media reports of the election campaign have been about the political violence in Zimbabwe. Much of it has been rural-based, and overwhelmingly committed by government supporters, pro-democracy activists have alleged. However, according to Ncube, the violence has been "strategic". Rather than being aimed at changing the way people intend to vote, "it’s been about intimidation, to encourage voter apathy", he said.
Brian Kagora of the Zimbabwe Crisis Group said there were many forms of disenfranchisement. One aspect would be intimidation, preventing "sectors seen as sympathetic to the opposition from voting", he told IRIN. But the other approach would be the "very lawful" use of the residency and citizenship clauses, and the draconian security law.
The Public Order and Security Act requires that the police are notified before any meeting of more than two people that is deemed "political" is held. What defines a political meeting is not clearly defined.
Reginald Machaba-Hove of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) explained that the legislation was not only "oppressive", but was being misinterpreted by the police. "It says notification, not clearance", but the police have used the new law as justification to arbitrarily close meetings that they do not wish to see take place.
President Robert Mugabe, 78, faces his stiffest political challenge since independence in the burly form of ex-trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai. But with just days to go to the polls, key aspects of the electoral process remain unclear.
It is not known for certain whether 12,000 domestic election monitors ZESN has organized will be accredited and deployed. The government has said it has trained public servants from the ministries of defence, home affairs and education to monitor the polls.
Few people have seen the list of the estimated 5,600 polling stations, crucial to allow observers to effectively deploy, activists have noted. Confusion is also likely in Harare, Chitungwiza and Gweru, where presidential, mayoral and council elections are to take place simultaneously, but with little voter education.
Commenting on the electoral process, Hondora concluded: "It’s legal, but not free and fair. The only way to get around this is if people vote in overwhelming numbers."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions