Friday, 3 March 2017

Biometric Voter Registration Minus Popular Public Engagement in Zimbabwe

By Takura Zhangazha*

There’s a new elephant in Zimbabwe’s political room. And its called biometric voter registration (BVR).  The government has authorised the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to go ahead and establish a new voters' roll.  Tenders for the supply of the relevant equipment or BVR kits have since been issued albeit under what are now controversial/disputed circumstances. 

The main political opposition parties while welcoming the process of ZEC establishing a new voters roll have expressed misgivings about its lack of transparency.  Under their National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA) and through the MDC-T secretary general the opposition has announced that it shall be organising demonstrations against what it alleges to be government interference in the BVR kit procurement process.

Civil society, through the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and the Election Resource Center (ERC) have also welcomed the BVR process and have stated their intention to closely monitor it.    

Beyond the government, ZEC, opposition political parties and civil society positions, there is little public debate on the matter.  And that is not a good thing. 

The import of this is that the BVR process will probably be little understood by the public when it is eventually rolled out.  Or that those that will be at the forefront of mobilising and explaining to the public what BVR means will be those that are interested in political office, i.e the political parties. 

And in this, the front-runner will be the ruling party not only because it has a ubiquitous grassroots presence but also because it's commandist political culture brooks no debate of such developments at the same levels.

So we are still at the ‘nicer’ stage of the BVR process which is playing itself out in spits and spasms in the local mainstream media.  Arguments about tenders and who gets registered by ZEC for the civic education process or how it will be rolled out are however only a tip of the iceberg. 

What is more significant is how BVR will affect the traditional meaning of voting for the everyday citizen.  The fact that there shall be the use of cameras, fingerprint machines and specific addresses for specific polling stations will come as a bit of a shock to long registered voters. 

For those that are more familiar with technology and ICTs, especially in the urban areas, this may be fine save for some trust questions.

For citizens that are living in rural and peri-urban areas and have been voting for a while, this process will probably be a surprising technological encounter with the state and ZEC.  And because of the general fear that has accompanied electoral processes in these areas, there will be questions as to whether the process will not lead to insecurity and electoral violence. 

As a result the BVR will have to involve a lot of persuasion as to the safety and security of the voter who has previously witnessed or directly experienced electoral violence.  And this is a hard ask.  It means that the ruling party, largely accused of the same violence in rural and peri-urban areas will be the one that will be in the mind of the citizen being asked to register to vote.  Either out of fear or by way of its commandist mobilisation approach. 

A key question that will emerge is whether the opposition can mount counter voter registration mobilisation strategies that assures rural voters that this will be safe and secure.  Not only for their supporters but also for those that have a general fear of elections and attendant political processes such as rallies and smaller meetings.

The onus will be largely on ZEC and civil society to prove that the BVR process is non-partisan and legitimate in the eyes of the ordinary voter.  And that the taking of pictures, fingerprints is essentially in order to register and not to victimise anyone in the event of an unfavourable electoral outcome to any of the political parties that would rule Zimbabwe. 

My view is that unless ZEC and civil society organisations up their game in relation to educating the public about this new BVR process and its full import, it is the political parties that will define how it is eventually publicly viewed. 

It is a technical matter on the face of it but it is potentially of high political effect.  This is because it is a going to define a new trajectory of electioneering and elections. Regrettably there appears to be little or limited urgency in explaining this latter point to the people of Zimbabwe.  All of 16 months before the harmonised election. 
*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blgospot.com)