By Daniel Chigundu
Legal watchdog Veritas Zimbabwe says it is seeking to have its application challenging the voter education monopoly heard urgently.
In its application which was filed in the High Court in December last year, Veritas is seeking an order declaring that sections of the Electoral Act which give the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) a virtual monopoly over voter education are unconstitutional.
ZEC is currently conducting voter’s roll inspection in the country as part of the 2018 general elections roadmap; however, there has been little information that has been disseminated to the electorate owing to various challenges bedevilling ZEC.
Veritas in its weekly Bill Watch bulletin said the matter must be heard urgently so that it does not lose relevance of the current electoral period which the country is ceased with.
“Although the papers were filed on 19 December last year the application has not yet been set down for hearing. Veritas is seeking to have the matter heard urgently before the question of voter education becomes academic.
“The challenge to Section 40C is not just an academic exercise to clear out unconstitutional provisions of the Electoral Act – although this is an important factor. It is an attempt to ensure that voters in the forthcoming election are provided with all the information they need to exercise their democratic rights and make informed choices.
“ZEC itself does not have the resources to provide all voters with the necessary information; it has to be assisted in this task by other organisations – e.g. civil society organisations, unions, business entities and in particular churches, which have country-wide access to communities. The restrictions imposed by the Act debar most of them from assisting ZEC, and if the restrictions remain in the Act they will deny many voters access to independent, indeed to any, voter education,” said Veritas.
Speaking during a debate on the Electoral Amendment Bill in the National Assembly a few weeks ago, MDC-T Chief Whip Innocent Gonese also complained that restricting voter education role to ZEC and political parties was not good as it would disenfranchise those who do not belong to parties.
According to Veritas, “unless the restrictive provisions are removed from the Electoral Act, adequate and impartial voter education will not be given to voters.
“Without adequate and impartial voter education, voters will not know their rights and responsibilities in the forthcoming general election,” said the Veritas Bill Watch.
Veritas is challenging the constitutionality of two sections of the Electoral Act.
- Section 40C, which allows ZEC and its agents and political parties to provide voter education, but prohibits anyone else from doing so unless they comply with stringent conditions:
- They must be citizens or permanent residents, or associations of citizens or permanent residents.
- In the case of associations, they must be registered under the Private Voluntary Organisations Act or in the Deeds Registry and must be mandated by their constitutions to provide voter education.
- The voter education must be funded solely by local contributions or donations and must be provided free of charge.
- The voter education must be conducted in accordance with a course or programme approved by ZEC. The documents and other materials used to provide voter education must be given to ZEC for its scrutiny at least 28 days before they are used, together with the names, addresses and citizenship of the people who are to give it and details of the sources of funding for its provision.
- Section 40F, which states that foreign funding for voter education must be channelled through ZEC. This challenge falls away, however, because after Veritas filed its court papers the Electoral Amendment Bill that recently passed through Parliament was amended to repeal section 40F. If the President signs the Bill into law – and there is no reason to suppose he will not do so – this part of the challenge will become unnecessary.
Grounds for Challenge
Section 40C is challenged on the ground that it violates freedom of expression which, according to section 61 of the Constitution, includes freedom “to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information.”
Opposition to the Challenge
The respondents – ZEC, the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and the Attorney-General – have not opposed the application on its merits. Instead, ZEC has objected on technical grounds, though it has said, very properly, that it will go along with the court’s decision on the merits.