The European Union Election Observer Mission was one of the largest observer missions to Zimbabwe’s August election. In its report, the mission said Zimbabwe’s election had fallen short of regional and global standards. The EU then announced that it was suspending its US$5 million funding to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
A report by the SADC observer mission said some aspects of the election had fallen short of the region’s benchmarks. This has drawn an angry reaction from some government officials, leading to a sustained press campaign against the SADC and EU missions. State media has claimed collusion between the EU and SADC missions in their reports on the election.
Here, newZWire speaks to EU Ambassador Jobst von Kirchmann on how he has reacted to the campaign, why the EU suspended ZEC funding, and what this all means for Zimbabwe-EU relations going forward.
You have been accused of interfering in the reports of election observers, including that of the SADC observer mission. What’s your response to that?
I’ve seen the reports, with great concern. First of all, we need to recall why we had an electoral observer mission. It’s because we were invited to come here. So, the Government of Zimbabwe invited the EU, we signed an agreement that the government would give us full access and fully assist this mission in their work.
But, when our mission came here – and these are all high-level professionals – from the first day, we saw a defamation campaign in the state media, with the weirdest claims; people being biased, free whiskey vouchers for journalists to write bad things and so on. So, we were asking ourselves, ‘why are we invited to an election observer mission, and when the people arrive here, they are already defamed?’
That was baseless and unsubstantiated, and it’s a pity that it happened.
Our mission is one of the most professional election observer missions in the world. We had 154 people deployed here, in all provinces. These are all professionals. They have observed elections in countless countries around the world. They come with one objective; to do an impartial observation of the election, according to an international methodology which allows the benchmarking of elections.
Then they issued a report which said the election fell short of several international and regional standards, in particular in terms of principles such as transparency, accountability, universality, equality etcetera. This report is what it is.
The next claim was that because SADC issued a similar report – and others such as the Carter Centre, the Commonwealth issued similar reports – then the next thing was to say ‘the EU has plotted and masterminded all of these observer missions reports’.
As EU, we support independent observer missions, because it’s a good thing to have an independent and impartial view.
You see, when you go to a doctor for a checkup, and you hear things you don’t like to hear, then you go to the next (doctor), and to a third and a fourth, and they all say the same, you can say they plotted, they talked to each other. But, maybe they’re also right. I think this total rejection of the reports is something we have difficulty understanding, and that translating to a disinformation campaign, going beyond that not only to attack the EU observer mission, but the EU itself.
Who do you think is behind it?
We believe this is being done by specific people who write these articles, with the aim of undermining the relations between Zimbabwe and the EU. That’s the objective.
You say ‘specific people’ are behind this. Do you mean you’ve spoken to Foreign Affairs directly and they’ve disowned what’s being said?
We’ve just seen the reports in the state media, repeated articles where it just says ‘Herald Reporter’, so we don’t know who it is, but somebody has written these articles.
When I went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they said it’s freedom of the press. Fair enough. But, when the EU ambassadors were invited to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a post-election briefing, what happened, in reality, is that my colleagues and I found ourselves in a room with the press and the (then acting Foreign) Minister reading out a statement condemning the preliminary report and findings of the EU observation mission. Before we could react, the press was called out (of the room).
So, yes, the government has taken ownership of these articles, of what was said, at least partially.
One of the things said in the EU report was that observers didn’t have access to ZEC. What happened exactly?
We signed an administrative agreement between Zimbabwe and the EU. One of the clauses of this agreement is that the government would give the observers full access to all electoral bodies.
What is the first body you should have access to; it’s the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. Our chief observer and his team did not have access to ZEC. When he went back, in a public hearing in the European Parliament in Brussels, he said this was unprecedented. It never happened to an electoral observer mission to not get access to the key electoral body, the electoral commission.
What were your reasons for funding ZEC to start with?
Indeed we suspended the funding to ZEC. If you read the preliminary report of the EU observer mission, and also the SADC, Commonwealth, and Carter missions, you find a part about ZEC. In our report, it was summarised that ZEC missed an opportunity to increase trust in the integrity of the voting system and voter registration. So, for us, it was logical to say an independent institution which did not live up to expectations, why would we continue funding them, in those circumstances?
That’s why we suspended the funding, as a consequence of the preliminary report of our observers.
Did you force this funding on Zimbabwe?
Did you see the reaction to the suspension of funding to ZEC? The reaction in state media was to say ‘that’s right, they imposed this funding on us’. But this is not true. In November 2022, the EU and the Zimbabwe government signed a financing agreement and there was a joint release stating that they both agreed on this funding, which was requested by the government, which is in line with NDS1 and other objectives. It was a joint venture to support ZEC. Unfortunately, the delivery during the election, the delivery was not exactly that.
But some of your critics, Ambassador, say you should’ve never given ZEC the money to start with. How do you respond to that?
ZEC is supposed to be an independent electoral commission, and any such commission has a key role to play in an electoral process. As such, reinforcing the implementation of the mandate of an independent electoral commission is a good thing.
You can say an electoral commission is not yet there. But does that mean you shouldn’t support that electoral commission or, on the contrary, would it mean you should support this electoral commission in order to get it to a higher standard?
Now, retrospectively, you can tell me this was not the right decision. But we invested, through our partners UNDP, in reinforcing the capacity of ZEC because we believe it’s important to have an electoral commission which is independent and can deliver its mandate to the citizens of Zimbabwe. That’s why we did.
Will the EU accept another invitation to observe Zimbabwe’s next election?
That is in five years’ time. We have to focus on how things evolve over the next few months. The next important step will be the delivery of the final report of the EU electoral observer mission. That will happen in mid-November. It’s part of our agreement with the government that the Chief Observer comes back here, with the final report and recommendations, and that we engage in discussions. We’re very much looking forward to that. That is the next step where we can see how we can cooperate in a constructive way and not in a way that the EU is invited and then defamed or subjected to disinformation.
So, the final report will also have a bearing on the talks regarding the arrears clearance process?
No, this is on election observation issues. The report will only be on the electoral process, from before the election, until the very end of the election process.
We’ve seen you support areas such as the arts since your arrival here, and some have been saying you’ve taken a different approach from what we’ve had. Doesn’t it frustrate you as an ambassador, personally, to see how things have turned out?
I look at it from the angle that some people may want re-engagement and engagement with the EU, and others do not want to. Like in any society or country around the world, there are different opinions. This takes nothing away from the joy, for example, working with young artists and supporting cultural platforms where we give young artists – and there are plenty in Zimbabwe – and platform to move forward.