Zimbabwean police can now access polling stations, according to recent changes made to the electoral law. This could intimidate voters, say concerned civil society groups. General elections are scheduled to be held in Zimbabwe on 29 March.
The Electoral Act was amended to allow police and electoral officials to assist illiterate and physically incapacitated voters, according to the official daily newspaper, The Herald. Before the amendment, police officials were only allowed up to 100m of a polling station.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), an electoral monitoring organisation, told IRIN the new regulations would undermine voters’ confidence in the electoral process.
|We have an extremely peaceful atmosphere here. In fact, the opposition has been tearing down the ruling party's posters down. There is no intimidation. If anyone is facing problems they should come to me, it is my job as the information minister to protect everyone|
"Further, voters requiring assistance to cast their ballots should be able to designate a person of their choice to help them mark their ballot," said Noel Kututwa, ZESN chairman.
Munashe Gore, an activist who advocates for the rights of the physically handicapped, said he would not cast his vote in the presence of electoral officials and the police. "I have always relied on my assistant who knows almost all my secrets. I would only be happy for him to assist me with the voting exercise. I am therefore not going to vote because I do not want to endanger myself because I support the opposition."
The government however maintained that the police were being allowed into the polling station to protect the electorate. "We have to protect our voters from saboteurs," said Zimbabwean Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, and dismissed the ZESN as "part of the opposition attempting to denigrate the government."
The amendments to the electoral law were designed to "intimidate" voters, according to Lovemore Madhuku, chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, a consortium of Zimbabwe's civic groups.
A faction of the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, described the changes to the electoral law as "an assault" on the Southern African Development Community (SADC) political process led by South African President Thabo Mbeki, who was mandated by the SADC in March 2007 to find a solution to Zimbabwe's economic and political crisis.
Zimbabwe is suffering from the world's highest inflation rate, of around 100,000 percent. The government blames sanctions imposed by some western countries for its economic problems.
Free and fair?
The SADC team in Zimbabwe said it had found the conditions on the ground were conducive to the holding of free and fair elections. "The administrative arms of government are all working, everybody who is supposed to contribute to the election is doing his or her duties unhindered," Jose Marcos Barrica, Angola's Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture and head of the SADC observer mission told the local media recently.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report released this week claimed restrictions on campaigning, flawed electoral procedures, the politicisation of the distribution of agricultural equipment and food, an overwhelmingly pro-government media bias, arrests, and intimidation of the opposition precluded the possibility of holding free and fair elections.
"This is just a lie - total lie," commented Ndlovu, Zimbabwe's information minister. "We are a respectable country - we are a sovereign state and we uphold human rights - what right does anyone from outside have to question us?
"We have an extremely peaceful atmosphere here," he added. "In fact, the opposition has been tearing down the ruling party's posters down. There is no intimidation. If anyone is facing problems they should come to me, it is my job as the information minister to protect everyone."
The HRW report urged SADC in particular, to "evaluate the political context in which these elections are being held as well as the electoral process as a
whole, and should promptly and unequivocally condemn serious breaches of international and regional standards".
SADC, it said should ensure that there are "consequences" for the government of Zimbabwe if it again flouts its international commitment to hold free and fair elections. Another round of flawed elections should not be seen as "business as usual" in relations between the SADC and the government of Zimbabwe.
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
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