ELECTION WATCH 8/2017
[22nd August 2017]
Could Zimbabwe have an Early March 2018 Election?
There have been newspaper stories and a great deal of speculation about the possibility of the President proclaiming a March 2018 election.
These rumours persist in spite of the fact that the Constitution provides for regular five-year terms for Parliament and for elections to take place just before the expiry of each five-year term, i.e. the next elections should take place between July 23rd and August 21st 2018 [see Election Watch 1/2017 of 10th May link.] The Constitution removed the President’s power to call an election whenever it suited the President and ruling party, and instead tried to ensure that Parliament sits for regular five-year terms. In Election Watch 4 of 18th July [link], in which Veritas outlined a likely election timetable, a five-year Parliamentary term and a July/August election was assumed and it was calculated that this would give the Zimbabwe Election Commission [ZEC] just enough time to complete a new voters roll for the earliest possible proclamation date for these elections.
This bulletin considers:-
• the exceptional circumstances under which the Constitution would permit an earlier election;
• a possible timeframe for a 3rd March 2018 election;
• the implications for ZEC and the preparation of the voters roll.
Exceptional Circumstance Leading to Early Dissolution of Parliament
There are three exceptional situations in which the Constitution permits an early dissolution of Parliament followed by a general election:
1. “The President must by proclamation dissolve Parliament if the Senate and the National Assembly, sitting separately, by the votes of at least two-thirds of the total membership of each House, have passed resolutions to dissolve.” [Constitution, section 143(2)]
2. “The President may by proclamation dissolve Parliament if the National Assembly has unreasonably refused to pass an Appropriation Bill” [the Budget]. [Constitution, section 143(3)]
3. “The President has dissolved Parliament following a vote of no confidence” [in the Government]. [Constitution, section 144(2)]
If the Government Thinks an Early Election is Politically Expedient
The President could of course ignore the Constitution and the law and just proclaim an early election. It is unlikely, however, that he would choose to face regional and international condemnation by doing this.
The option of refusing to pass an Appropriation Bill is also unlikely, as this provision was designed to be used in the case of an impasse between the government and Parliament. As Parliament has always virtually rubber-stamped Budget Bills it would be an unconvincing manoeuvre for the ruling party to use this provision to engineer an early election. Also “A decision to dissolve Parliament ... may, on the application of any Member of Parliament, be set aside on review by the Constitutional Court” [Constitution, section 143(4)].
The option of getting Parliament to pass a vote of no confidence in the government is most unlikely as this would involve a public humiliation for the President and ZANU-PF.
This leaves the option of trying to dissolve Parliament using ZANU-PF’s large majority to do so. This would be unlikely to call down international opprobrium as it is not uncommon in democracies for the government of the day to choose to dissolve Parliament and call early elections. Although our Constitution did its best to prevent this from being the usual scenario, it had to make provision for it to prevent a possible deadlock in government.
A Two-Thirds Majority in Each House Necessary to Dissolve Parliament
There is no special procedure for a dissolution resolution in Standing Orders. All that would be needed is a motion for dissolution to be carried in each House by at least “two-thirds of the total membership of each House”.
Does ZANU-PF have the required majorities in both Houses?
In the Senate A two-thirds majority is 54 votes out of the 80-member Senate. ZANU-PF holds 37 seats; MDC-T 21; MDC 2; Chiefs 18; Disabled Representatives 2. To get 54 votes, ZANU-PF needs the votes of all its own 37 Senators plus 17 others. [Note: for the Constitution Amendment Bill on 1st August, all 18 Senator Chiefs and both the 2 Senators representing disabled persons voted with ZANU-PF to pass the Bill.]
National Assembly A two-thirds majority requires 180 votes in the 270-member National Assembly. ZANU-PF holds 212 seats - a comfortable two-thirds majority.
Note: Although there was difficulty getting the required two-thirds majority for the Constitution Amendment Bill, there would probably not be the same difficulty over a vote for early dissolution as ZANU-PF parliamentarians would be likely to think an early election would increase their chances of being returned to Parliament.
Consequences of An Early Dissolution of Parliament
If both Houses of Parliament pass resolutions to dissolve Parliament, an inexorable chain of events is set in motion leading to a general election:-
• the President must by proclamation dissolve Parliament [section 143(2)]
• the President must by proclamation call and set dates for a general election to be held “not more than ninety days after Parliament passed the resolutions” [section 144(2)].
Note: The President must consult the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission before fixing the dates for the general election [section 144(3)]
A Possible Timetable for a 3rd March Election
If the rationale for an early election is for an already prepared ZANU-PF to make things as difficult as possible for all other parties and/or coalitions, a fast-as-possible election programme would make sense [i.e. with as few delays as feasible between proclamation and polling]. Hence the suggestions of an early March election.
The earliest day in March 2018 for elections would be Saturday 3rd March [elections are normally held on a Saturday.] This would mean that the dissolution vote in Parliament would have to be no earlier than 4th December 2017 [because, as already noted, there must not be more than 90 days between the vote and the election]. And the election proclamation following the vote could not be later than 18th January 2018 [because under section 157(3) of the Constitution there must not be less than 44 days between the proclamation of an election and polling day].
On this basis a fast timetable for polling on Saturday 3rd March 2018 would be:-
• The vote for dissolution: Between 4th December 2017 and 16th January 2018 [the day before the latest possible date for the election proclamation].
• The Presidential Proclamation of the Dissolution of Parliament: any time after the vote for dissolution and before or on same day as Proclamation of Elections
• Presidential Proclamation of Elections: Thursday 18th January 2018 [Section 157(3) of the Constitution stipulates at least 44 days from proclamation date to polling date.]
• Nomination date: Thursday 1st February 2018 [must be at least 14 days after the Proclamation: section 157(3) of the Constitution]
• Polling date: Saturday 3rd March 2018
Could ZEC Deliver a March Election?
The stark fact is that at the moment there are no up-to-date voters rolls.
Any discussion of voters rolls in Zimbabwe is inevitably coloured by the fact that ever since it became responsible for voter registration in 2013, ZEC has been and is still defaulting on its statutory obligation to conduct voter registration “on a continuous basis so as to keep the voters rolls up-to-date” [Electoral Act, section 17A]. The only registration of first-time voters since 2013 has been in the relatively few constituencies and wards in which there have been by-elections.
ZEC has consistently said that it intends to produce a completely new voters roll and will use Biometric Voter Registration [BVR] to do so – but the exercise has not yet started. ZEC has given an assurance that the country-wide exercise will be completed by the end of this year or just into January next year. They have said they will then take eight weeks to complete the cleaning up, de-duplication, compilation and printing of the voters roll. And then they have allowed four weeks for the printed roll to be inspected. This means that ZEC could, but only just, be ready with a new voter roll in April next year, in time for a May proclamation for elections in July/August 2018 – but not in time for a March election.
But: the new BVR voters roll will not be completed and ready for use for a general election in March
ZEC Must Make Existing Voter Roll Available
As it is doubtful if ZEC could withstand any pressure to hold a March election:-
ZEC should make alternative arrangements in case an early election is called and must not leave a last-minute situation in which we neither have a new BVR voters roll nor an updated and cleaned up existing voters roll open to inspection.
This bulletin is very much based on an unknown situation – whether an early election will be called. But there is one certainty amid all the other uncertainties: that without a completely credible voters roll, whether a new one or an updated, cleaned up and inspected existing one, there cannot be a credible election next year, whether in March or any other month,