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The Role of Domestic Observers in Elections

  By The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN)

As Zimbabwe prepares to hold harmonised elections next week on 23 August 2023, it is essential to highlight the role domestic observers play in emboldening democracy and electoral integrity. Elections across the globe provide the basis for the electorate to express their will about who should govern and how.

They are linked to the dignity of our country and the ability of citizens to improve their lives. Safeguarding the electoral process is an act of patriotism and demonstrates a commitment to democracy not only in Zimbabwe but in many countries that hold elections.

Election management and election observation methodologies are informed by benchmarks; domestic laws such as the Constitution and the Electoral Act, international, continental and regional enshrined in international fundamental obligations such as the right and opportunity to participate in public affairs; right and opportunity to vote and be elected; regular elections; universal and equal suffrage; secret ballot; transparency and the right to information; freedom from discrimination and equality under the law; freedom of association; freedom of assembly and freedom of movement among others

There are commonly two types of election observers – Long Term Observers (LTO) and Short Term Observers (STO). LTOs observe all aspects of the election process (electoral cycle) while STOs observe the Election Day processes only.

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance (ACDEG) which Zimbabwe ratified in 2022, recognizes the paramount importance of elections in Article 22 which provides that; State Parties shall create a conducive environment for independent and impartial national monitoring or observation mechanisms.

The Charter also calls on State Parties to enhance the election observation missions in the role they play, mainly as they are an important contributory factor to ensuring the regularity, transparency and credibility of elections.

In Zimbabwe, the law provides and recognizes the roles of observers. Under Section 40 G (1) (d) of the Electoral Act; Persons who are accredited by the Commission as observers of an election shall be entitled to do all or any of the following… to provide the Commission with a comprehensive review of the election taking into account all relevant circumstances, including— (i) the degree of impartiality shown by the Commission; and (ii) the degree of freedom of political parties to organise, move, assemble and express their views publicly; and (iii) the opportunity for political parties to have their agents observe all aspects of the electoral process; and (iv) the fairness of access afforded to political parties to the national media and other resources of the State; and (v) the proper conduct of the polling and the counting of the votes at the election; and (vi) any other issue concerning the essential freedom and fairness of the election.

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Domestic election observers’ role is to appraise the electoral process from the beginning to the end, including voter registration, campaigning, voting, vote counting, and the announcement of results to ensure that elections are free, fair and credible.

They also report on any irregularities or violations of electoral laws and regulations that they observe during the electoral process; promoting transparency by providing public reports on their observations and recommendations for improving the electoral process, and promoting trust and confidence in the electoral process by providing impartial and unbiased reports on the conduct of elections.

Election observation by nonpartisan Zimbabwean observers strengthens sovereignty and upholds credible, inclusive and transparent elections. It also improves civic participation in the electoral process and ensures the voices of all registered Zimbabwean voters are heard on Election Day. Nonpartisan means that, while every citizen has a right to vote, the institutions and persons observing the elections will do so without soliciting favour from any political party and will not publicly advocate for support or endorsement of any political party.
Domestic election observation by well-trained observers can increase public confidence in the electoral process and promotes transparency. Where election observation identifies shortcomings, they provide an objective basis for making recommendations to ensure improvements in future electoral processes.

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More so, they commend the positive attributes of the processes to ensure the preservation and promotion of good electoral practices by stakeholders e. g voters, government, Parliament, Election Management Bodies, Civil Society Organisations, Media, political parties and candidates among others.

Furthermore, the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders and on the right to freedom and peaceful assembly and of associations issued a statement on 27 October 2022 explicitly recognizing citizen and international election observers as human rights defenders.

The Special Rapporteurs further explicitly urged Member States to “take all necessary steps to establish conditions that allow national and international election observers to effectively do their work, and to protect them from any violence, threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of the legitimate exercise of their rights and freedoms.”

There needs to be greater access to election-related data, based on the open data policy given the fact that domestic election observation assists to enhance transparency, credibility and acceptance of the electoral outcomes. This is against the backdrop that observation consists of a systematic collection of information on an electoral process by direct observation based on established methodologies, often analysing both qualitative and quantitative data.

As such, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) will be and has been deploying thousands of domestic observers since its formation in 2000.

The organisation promotes democratic elections in Zimbabwe through domestic oversight of all electoral processes such as voter registration, nomination, pre and post-electoral environment and polling day processes among others and its observation reports with all key electoral stakeholders including the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) as required by Section 40 G (1) (d) of the Electoral Act on the Functions of Accredited Observers.

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