MILDRED Muchenje, 26, was anxious as she approached the long, winding queue at her polling station in Warren Park, Harare, on 23 August.
She was about to cast her vote for only the second time ever, in the Zimbabwean presidential elections.
She had expected it to be a breeze, like it was in 2018. It wasn’t. She was told voting was yet to start because there were no ballot papers. What she didn’t know at the time, however, was this was the beginning of a more than 12-hour wait.
“I recently relocated, so voting for me meant travelling to the polling station,” Muchenje told openDemocracy. “When I went there early I was told there were no ballot papers. I wanted to vote and return home but I ended up sleeping in Warren Park.”
The elections were marred by voter intimidation, rigging and vote buying but observers say ballot delays were the main culprit in ensuring they were not free and fair.
“Some aspects of the harmonised elections fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC [Southern African Development Community] Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021),” reads part of the preliminary report by Nevers Mumba, a former vice president of Zambia and the head of SADC Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM).
On 26 August, 80-year-old incumbent president Emmerson Mnangagwa was declared the winner by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) with 52.6% of the ballots. His biggest rival Nelson Chamisa had 44% and has labelled the election a “gigantic fraud”.
Three weeks on, the fallout has continued, with opposition parties including Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and United Zimbabwe Alliance claiming the vote was rigged, that Mnangagwa’s ZANU PF colluded with the ZEC; and that ballot delays were the ruling party’s means of stealing the election.
Mnangagwa has denied fraud and said anyone questioning the results of the election can go through the courts.
But calls are intensifying for a fresh vote or, failing that, a diplomatic solution.
Ballot paper delays
Before the elections, ZEC chairperson Priscilla Chigumba told observers in Harare that the electoral body was ready and had printed enough ballot papers. But on 23 August, according to multiple electoral observer reports, many polling stations in opposition strongholds like Harare, Bulawayo and Manicaland Province had no ballot papers.
openDemocracy visited some polling stations which were billed to open for voting at 7am. However, polling officers only started allowing people to cast their vote at 10pm.
That left registered voters standing in long queues under the blazing summer sun for hours. They told openDemocracy they were angry, fatigued and frustrated by the delays.
During interviews with local media on election day, ZEC chief election officer, Utloile Silaigwana said they were still printing ballot papers. This contradicted the ZEC chairperson who had assured the nation that everything was in order days earlier.
Mnangagwa was forced to extend voting for polling stations in many wards across the opposition strongholds into the next day and many people in Harare, Bulawayo and Manicaland Provinces spent more than 12 hours in the queue.
Opposition party CCC spokesperson Promise Mkwananzi said the delay in ballot paper distribution was “deliberately targeted” in opposition strongholds.
“In Harare, more than 700 000 people were not able to vote due to the frustration in the delay of ballot paper deployment,” he told openDemocracy.
“It was shambolic and it was totally illegal. Violence and intimidation made a bad situation worse.”
openDemocracy saw how voters were intimidated in both rural and urban areas, particularly by the Central Intelligence Organisation affiliated Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ), which was collecting names and identity numbers and coercing people to vote for Zanu PF.
Zanu PF spokesperson Chris Mutsvangwa acknowledged the delays in ballot paper printing but did not say if the party had raised it with the ZEC.
“Democracy is a quest that freedom-loving nations aspire to. That said, it is not a golden highway. It is a tantalising challenge with its own chances as well as mistakes and missteps. That’s [why] it calls for integrity and goodwill from all participants,” he told openDemocracy.
Not many people had the patience to wait to vote like Muchenje.
Some left polling stations as they could not endure more of the frustration and fatigue caused by the delay in ballot paper distribution. They include Lovemore Matikiti, a registered voter in the Warren Park constituency, who went home without voting. When he went to the polling station the next morning, he was told voting had closed the previous night.
“Just like that, my right to vote had been taken away from me by ZEC. I will never forgive them,” Matikiti said.
Matikiti’s polling station was not the only that opened late but closed the same night, despite the reprieve given by Mnangagwa. Some polling stations in Harare which had opened late closed around midnight but they did not open the next day.
Other voters could also not vote on the extended day because of the long distances they had to travel to polling stations, particularly in rural areas. And the additional voting day was not a holiday, unlike 23 August. Many employers did not allow their workers time to go and vote.
All of these problems meant that out of 6.6 million registered voters, two million people (30.3%) did not vote, according to statistics released by ZEC.
This is more than double the number of non-voters in the 2018 elections, in which 800,000 people (14.2%) of 5.6 million registered voters did not cast a ballot.
“Looking at those statistics, one can safely say among the two million people, the greatest chunk was those disadvantaged by the delays in terms of delivery of local authority ballot papers,” said Rawlings Magede, programmes manager at Heal Zimbabwe, a civil society organisation that observed the elections, campaigning for free and fair polls.
Ballot papers being printed on election day is not normal, according to Wilbert Mandinde, acting executive director of Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of twenty-two human rights non-governmental organisations in Zimbabwe.
“In the past election ballots were basically distributed a day or two before the election day so that on election day people would just go to the polling day. This is almost the first time that we had ballot papers being printed on election day,” said Mandinde, who is also a lawyer.
The ballot papers for this year’s elections were printed by Fidelity Printers and Refiners, a company owned by the government through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. openDemocracy reached out for comment but did not receive a response.
Call for a fresh election and a diplomatic solution
CCC’s Mkwananzi is calling for a fresh election that meets the guidelines of the constitution and SADC principles.
But with the results already certified, it appears the ZEC does not intend to address the issue of ballot delays or offer any reprieve to voters, according to David Carroll, director of the US Carter Center’s Democracy Program. If that is the case, voters will remain disenfranchised.
Even justice through the courts is seen as unlikely, as opposition parties claim the judiciary has been captured by the ruling party. Instead, they want to pursue a diplomatic solution through the African Union and the SADC, the inter-governmental body of 16 countries in southern Africa.
There is some precedent there. In 2008, following a disputed election, then South African president Thabo Mbeki, through pressure from SADC, brokered a power sharing deal between the two frontrunners Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. This gave birth to the Government of National Unity from 2009 to 2013, when Mugabe was president while Tsvangirai was prime minister.
Magede says all indications so far are pointing towards a similar solution.
“The swearing in of Mnangagwa and appointments of cabinet members is all being done in a hurry. But the fact that SADC is not yet clear on Zimbabwe elections, that alone has ramifications on the Mnangagwa regime. You can not be isolated by SADC and survive,” he said.