Ballot paper design row threatens Zimbabwe election

Zimbabwe's main opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) candidate Nelson Chamisa. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A dispute has erupted over the design of Zimbabwe’s presidential election ballot paper with opposition parties and independent observers accusing the electoral commission of trying to rig the poll for President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold its first post-Robert Mugabe General Election on July 30, but the opposition is threating to disrupt the poll if the design of the ballot paper is not changed.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) printed the ballot papers with the presidential candidates listed in alphabetical order in two columns.

President Mnangagwa’s name, which would be towards the middle of a single column in terms of the Electoral Act, heads the second column in the ZEC design.

ZEC justified the design saying the high number of presidential candidates made it expensive to print a single column ballot paper, a claim that has been rejected by both the opposition and legal experts.

Alphabetical order

A record 23 candidates are contesting the presidential election, which will coincide with parliamentary and local government polls.

“In terms of the regulations the names of the candidates must be listed one below the other in alphabetical order of surnames,” said Veritas, a group of independent lawyers monitoring the process.

“This is important because, in Zimbabwe as elsewhere, people read lists from top to bottom and the candidate whose name heads the list has a slight advantage over those whose names appear lower down,” Veritas added.

“Under the Act and the regulations that advantage goes to the candidate who, by any chance of birth, has a surname that begins with a letter towards the begging of the alphabet.”

The name of the opposition MDC Alliance presidential Nelson Chamisa, who is seen as President Mnangagwa’s biggest challenger, would have appeared second on the ballot with a single column.

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa. FILE
Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

President Mnangagwa’s name would have been a distant 15th on the ballot paper if ZEC had stuck to the regulations.

“In the present case, where there are 23 candidates, if the list had to be split, the ballot paper should have had two columns, one with 11 names and the other with 12,” Veritas said.

“Instead, ZEC‘s columns, one with 14 names and one with nine, are artfully designed to ensure that the president has the advantage of heading the second column. There can be no legitimate reason for this.”

ZEC chairperson Justice Priscilla Chigumba has consistently denied allegations the electoral agency was trying to rig the polls in favour of President Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mr Mugabe in November last year after a military takeover.

The run-up to the election has also been marred by disputes over the voters’ roll, which the opposition says is filled with dead people.

To stage vigils

“When ZEC’s officials have been asked why they cannot use their broad constitutional powers to fill in gaps in the electoral law, they have answered that they must stick to the letter of the law as contained in the Electoral Act and its regulations,” Veritas said.

“It is strange, to say the least, that in this instance they have chosen to ignore the clear provisions of the Act and regulations, and instead purported to rely on the constitution.”

Mr Chamisa’s coalition has staged two well-attended demonstrations in the last two months in Harare, protesting against the alleged attempts to rig the elections.

The opposition on Thursday said it was mobilising its supporters to stage vigils at ZEC offices throughout the country beginning next week until the commission addresses their concerns.

Zimbabwe under Mr Mugabe had a history of disputed elections, which saw the country being isolated by the international community.

Source: The East Africa