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BVR: The Pros And Cons In Zimbabwe's Electoral System

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By Malvern Mkudu

ZIMBABWE’S voters’ roll’s credibility has always been a contested matter with accusations of the existence of ghost voters and other voter irregularities being thrown around.

Government has also admitted that the voters roll is not in order.

This has resulted in growing calls for the implementation of the Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system.

Last week saw opposition parties under the banner of NERA demonstrating against government’s decision to take over the financing of the BVR kits and equipment. Opposition parties are concerned that government will manipulate the process in favour of the ruling Zanu PF party.

In their defence government have reiterated that they are only financing the process but the UNDP led process of identifying the supplier of the equipment will not be interfered with.

Government through ZEC have also said the political parties will be invited to inspect the procurement from start to finish. But are these the most pressing concerns over BVR?

Opposition parties are unsure about what they really want concerning BVR and the ruling party seems to be capitalising on this apparent confusion. Depending on who you talk to in opposition circles, the preferences towards BVR are varied.

The Elton Mangoma led Renewal Democrats of Zimbabwe have condemned BVR and categorically stated  that they want people to go back to the 1980 voting system where locals only needed identity cards to cast their votes.

Other opposition parties seem to favour BVR even though their positions have not been entirely clear.

Government is lukewarm on the matter. Only two weeks ago, the state controlled Sunday Mail carried a comment that made it clear that BVR is a luxury that the country cannot afford. This was seen as an attempt by government to dump BVR and it has muddied the waters concerning what Zanu PF’s real intentions with BVR are.

As a result accusations and counter accusations of rigging have been flying.

Ordinary people have not been able to wade into the debate because the BVR concept has not been sufficiently explained and contextualised to the Zimbabwean situation. For now, it is a discussion reserved for the elite and political parties with the rest of the citizens sent to the caves.

However, to fully grasp this issue, it is necessary to understand why those who are advocating for BVR are doing so. What are the problems BVR is intended to solve or what are the issues that the system is intended to resolve.

In the 2013 elections, Tendai Biti complained of bussed voters into his constituency. There were allegations of ghost voters on the voters roll and the refusal or reluctance by the Registrar–General to give access to opposition parties to the voters’ roll gave impetus to those allegations.

The voters roll has remained a closely guarded secret by the government. Opposition parties feel they lost these elections as a result of ghost voters.

A lot of registered voters were turned away on the day of voting while others simply did not appear in the voters roll or claimed that they were registered in the wrong voting wards. The aggrieved political parties feel the BVR system will minimise some of these inefficiencies by cleaning the voters roll.

The seemingly partisan stance by the Registrar-General makes the credibility of registration of citizens become questionable. It is therefore imperative to have a system that identifies voters and also verify that these voters are who they claim to be. Biometric Voters Registration is expected to solve these issues of voter identification and verification of the voters.

To be a success, BVR requires essential skills for the inexperienced staff that will be involved. There are also inherent problems associated with BVR which are even more pronounced and complicated in third world countries such as Zimbabwe.

BVR requires basic computer skills with an emphasis on data capture, processing and administration. The staff must also have the capacity to repair and maintain equipment. Adequate time is required to ensure that there is sufficient training time for the staff involved. 

With the country less than 15 months away from the election, it is debatable whether there is enough time to train staff.

There may also be bandwidth or connectivity problems especially in the rural areas. With government’s propensity to switch off the internet to silence dissent on social media as they did on the eve of the 2013 elections, the BVR effectiveness may be thrown into disarray if government resorts to the same tactics.

BVR is also likely to be ineffective in an environment where voter education is partisan and politicised. Zimbabwe political environment is fraught with intimidation with reports of villagers being told that some political parties have equipment that sees how they vote being recorded in the past. If this intimidation is not addressed, BVR is likely to work against opposition parties.

Ultimately opposition parties must see BVR as the silver bullet that will solve their electoral issues. They also have to look within themselves for reasons why they have failed in previous and current elections.

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