Diaspora vote remains a pipe dream ahead of 2023 polls

While citizens of some Southern African countries such as South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi enjoy the right to vote in national elections while domiciled in other countries, for millions of Zimbabweans living abroad, the diaspora vote is still on the horizon even as the 2023 synchronised polls beckon.

Diaspora vote is one of the key electoral reform demands which civic society organisations believe may enhance the country’s democracy and electoral processes.

There is no consensus on how many Zimbabweans are living abroad, with estimates ranging between two million and five million, most of them in neighbouring South Africa.

Zimbabweans living and working abroad are among the country’s top contributors of foreign currency earnings and last year alone, they sent home a total of US$1 billion, the highest ever contribution made to the local economy, according to Finance and Economic Development Minister, Mthuli Ncube.

The 2020 diaspora remittances surpassed both the previous year’s amount of US$635.7 million and the Central Bank’s projections of US$940 million.

In the first four months of this year alone, diaspora remittances also jumped to US$411.1 million, compared to $221.9 million a year earlier, according to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) governor, Dr John Mangudya.

The inflows are Zimbabwe’s second-biggest source of foreign-exchange earnings, after revenue from platinum exports.

Notwithstanding Section 67 of the Constitution which provides for the right of every Zimbabwean aged 18 years and above to vote, it does not explicitly mention diaspora vote, despite being interpreted by some legal experts to mean such.

Zimbabwean nationals living outside the country who have for a long time been pressing to be allowed to take part in the electoral processes back home have not been granted that right, even after the adoption of the new constitution in 2013 considered progressive in the country’s history.

In 2013, the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) dismissed an application by a South African-based Zimbabwean truck driver, Tavengwa Bukaibenyu for Zimbabweans in the diaspora to vote in the Constitutional referendum and subsequent elections.

Bukaibenyu’s application, among other things, sought to strike down Section 72 of the Electoral Act which limits the right to postal/diaspora voting to people deployed outside the country on government business and their spouses.

In dismissing the case the ConCourt maintained that postal voting remained a preserve of citizens outside the country on national duty, adding that the law did not provide for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to establish polling stations outside the country’s borders to cater for the needs of those in the diaspora.

Furthermore, the country’s highest court on constitutional matters – the ConCourt rejected another diaspora vote bid by Gabriel Shumba, Sibonile Mfumisi (based in South Africa) and Darlington Nyambiya (in the United Kingdom) ahead of the 2018 elections.

The three’s application was thrown out on the basis that the country’s polls are constituency-based and other related factors. The ConCourt went on to state that the right to vote provided for in Section 67 of the Zimbabwean Constitution is not absolute and does not explicitly provide for the diaspora vote. The remedy to the dispute, the judges said, lies in the applicants lobbying the legislature to amend the Constitution to allow for the diaspora vote.

The applicants’ lawyer, Advocate Thabani Mpofu, had argued that there was no need to amend the Constitution as Section 67 addresses the question of the diaspora vote.

Three years after the ConCourt ruled against the diaspora vote both the supreme law and the Electoral Act have not been amended to provide for the diaspora vote.

However, in what could have been considered as softening of stance by the Zanu-PF-led government; Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi, in October 2019 said the government was assessing the feasibility of the diaspora vote, adding an international study would be commissioned in 2020 that would determine whether the country would adopt the concept. But this has not happened.

One of the ZEC commissioners, Qhubani Moyo in January last year said the electoral management body was calling for politicians and relevant stakeholders to begin submitting proposals on how Zimbabwe could implement the diaspora vote.

Some civic society organisations have suggested that a diaspora constituency could be established for administrative purposes.

Now with the 2023 elections looming, Zanu-PF has begun digging in on the diaspora vote further casting a shadow of doubt on its implementation anytime soon.

The ruling party’s acting Political Commissar, Patrick Chinamasa, told a news conference in Harare last month that his party would only consider the concept after the lifting of sanctions imposed on several Zanu-PF members by the West.

“I cannot go to campaign in the United Kingdom because of sanctions as we all know, and as long as that situation persists, we will say no vote to people in the diaspora because we will be allowing only those who have been asking for sanctions to have access to that electorate,” he said.

“That, of course, is not acceptable, and we will not allow it. Sanctions must fall and then we will start talking about diaspora vote.”

However, Chinamasa is not on the latest UK sanctions list.

South African-based Zimbabwean, Bongani Mkwananzi said their geographical location should not be used as an excuse by the government in disenfranchising them from their constitutionally guaranteed right as they were forced out of the country by harsh economic conditions.

He said it was rather ironic that the government continues to benefit from diaspora remittances while denying them their rights to vote, adding there was no empirical evidence to suggest that Zimbabweans living abroad will vote against Zanu-PF as is thought to be feared by the ruling party.

Bongani Mkwananzi, a Zimbabwean working in South Africa, speaking from Johannesburg

Chairperson for the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa, Ngqabutho Mabhena said while the Covid-19 pandemic had slowed down their lobbying around the diaspora vote, they will continue pressing for its implementation as they consider it their democratic right.

Voice of Ngqabutho Mabhena, Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Community in South Africa, speaking from Johannesburg

Opposition MDC Alliance’s secretary for elections, Ian Makone said his party would continue fighting to ensure the diaspora vote is realised in Zimbabwe, adding they consider it provided for in the Constitution.

Voice of Ian Makone, MDC Alliance Secretary for Elections, speaking from Harare

However, for the constitutional lawyer and opposition MDC-T president, Douglas Mwonzora, the diaspora vote question can be resolved even ahead of the 2023 polls provided there is political will by powers-that-be.

He said denying Zimbabweans in the diaspora the right to vote is tantamount to disenfranchising them, describing it as “unfair, unjust and undemocratic.”

“Already the constitution of Zimbabwe gives the diaspora the right to vote,” said Mwonzora.

“However, the Electoral Act has constricted this right. This key electoral reform can be secured through unconditional, genuine, and inclusive national dialogue. To that end, the MDCT is pushing hard for national dialogue.”

Mwonzora said his party was also preparing a special paper on how the diaspora vote can be made “free, fair, safe and credible.”

He said implementing the diaspora vote would not be complicated.

“All that is required is sufficient political will on the part of all Zimbabwean political leaders,” he emphasised.

“We need a new approach to our politics. As soon as we start dialogue we will have the diaspora vote agreement before the 2023 electoral processes start.”

However, political analyst, Mkhululi Tshuma, does not foresee Zimbabweans in the diaspora voting in 2023.

“Zanu-PF which has the keys to it (diaspora vote), knows very well that a large chunk of these people are against the party for the simple reason that it is Zanu-PF’s mismanagement of the economy that has exiled them,” he said.

“Allowing them to vote will be suicidal for the party, and it has no incentive to allow them to vote. The only chance for the diaspora to be allowed to vote will be massive and sustained demonstrations. These may put pressure on the party and put it on the international spotlight. That is the only thing that may raise some hopes.”

He said besides that, they would have to wait until Zanu-PF is removed from power.

But Shumba, also whose diaspora vote bid was dismissed by the ConCourt in 218 said they have not given up, adding they would win one day.

He is also the chairperson of Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, an organisation representing interest of Zimbabweans in the diaspora.

“We believe that we are correct that both the Zim Constitution and International law and practice vindicate our position,” he said.

“We are thus now pursuing a multi-pronged approach that entails more lobbying of government, Parliament, inter alia. As you will appreciate, this is a very slow process but we have already held meetings with the Zim Consulate in SA in that aspect.” He said they had also met with some legislators on the issue.

“This is work in progress,” he said.

“If all fails, we will have to approach the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and other international fora. I posit that in principle, many do support the diaspora vote, including the President himself if we are to believe some of the pronouncements from that office. If this position is true, what is wanted is an unambiguous modification of statute and broad consensus on the nitty gritties and implementation.”

To ensure the issue of diaspora vote is not swept under the carpet, Ellen Dingani the Programmes Coordinator at  Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN), a civic society organisation, believes citizens should continue advocating for and popularising methods used in other countries that can be adopted for use in Zimbabwe.

“We must continue to engage stakeholders to bring a greater understanding of the value of incorporating diaspora vote,” she said.

Dingani said petitioning the Parliament on diaspora vote might not be necessary as she believes current laws adequately provide for it.

“It may not be necessary as the current laws provide for the right to vote for all citizens (section 67) while sections 36, 37, and 38 [of the Constitution of Zimbabwe] describe citizenship by birth, by descent and by registration,” explained Dingani.

“To me these appear adequate in defining who Zimbabwean citizens are, of which the majority if not everyone in the diaspora falls in those categories. So, to me it appears like section 67 is sufficient.”

She added once adopted the diaspora vote could be implemented through a combination of both postal and physical voting.

She elaborated that postal voting could be used in countries where there are low populations of Zimbabweans while physical voting is done in territories with significant numbers, with polling stations being set up at embassies and other strategic places.

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