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Tensions rise as Zimbabwe opposition casts doubt on fair election

Tensions rise as Zimbabwe opposition casts doubt on fair election

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – Tensions are rapidly brewing in Zimbabwe in advance of this month's election, with the opposition calling for greater transparency to ensure that the voting process is free and fair.

Zimbabweans will head to the ballots on July 30, in what will be the first election since the military-assisted ouster of former President Robert Mugabe in November 2017.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded Mugabe, and Nelson Chamisa, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC Alliance), are seen as the top two candidates in the presidential race.

Mnangagwa has vowed to deliver a free election and for the first time since 2002 Western observers have been accredited to monitor the polls.

But the conduct of Zimbabwe Election Commission's (ZEC) poll preparations has come under fire by the opposition, with thousands of MDC Alliance supporters marching in the capital, Harare, on Wednesday to demand reforms following alleged irregularities in the voters' roll.

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Tensions rose further on Thursday when the opposition said police and other security officers who will be on duty during the vote had begun casting their postal ballots at police stations in southern and western parts of the country – in violation of electoral law, which says postal ballots are not to be cast at a polling station.

Objecting to the proceedings, the MDC Alliance held an overnight vigil at Ross Camp police station in the second city of Bulawayo, guarding three open cardboard boxes containing sealed ballots.

The protest turned into a street demonstration on Friday, with scores of people chanting across from a line of armed riot police guarding the station.

"People are supposed to vote in their homes not at Ross Camp and that's why we had to guard those votes. This is a way of trying to steal the vote and we cannot say this is a free and fair vote when people are made to vote at a police station," said Dorcas Sibanda, an MDC Alliance MP for Bulawayo Central, an opposition stronghold.

She told Al Jazeera that at least 70 votes were cast at Ross Camp on Thursday.

"We don't agree with the way ZEC and this government is conducting itself. If the president says this is a free and fair election, where is the freeness if ZEC is not being transparent and lawful about its systems?" she told Al Jazeera.

MDC Alliance supporters hold up a banner protesting against shadowy proceedings in the postal ballot and the voters' roll [Tendai Marima/Al Jazeera]

Utoile Silaigwana, ZEC acting chief elections officer, had initially issued a statement dismissing reports of postal voting at Ross Camp as "hogwash and very stupid propaganda".

But he later retracted his position, acknowledging the postal ballot is to be held over three days.

According to S72 of the country's Electoral Act, officers are allowed to post their votes prior to polling day when they will be on duty. However, police stations cannot be used for voting. Instead, posted votes can be cast from the voters' homes and then returned to the police station’s chief officer.

"People are supposed to vote in their homes not at Ross Camp and that's why we had to guard those votes. This is a way of trying to steal the vote and we cannot say this is a free and fair vote when people are made to vote at a police station."

On Friday, in the presence of two European Union election observers, scores of security officers collected their postal envelopes under the instruction to cast their votes away from the site and return the document once completed.

Senior Assistant Commissioner Erasmus Makodza maintains voting in Bulawayo and other provinces is a valid process conducted in a free and fair manner.

"The postal voting process was done in accordance with the law no one was coerced to vote in a certain manner, it's only that those parties making allegations are not privy to the Electoral Act," he said.

Makodza said the rest of the police force is expected to vote on the scheduled date. However, the opposition has rejected the ballot as illegal and non-credible.

Gideon Shoko, provincial chief election agent for the MDC Alliance, told Al Jazeera the incident has tainted prospects of a credible poll.

"They should not have done this; these are postal voters meaning they don't vote together like this and these votes are not secured with the official seal so the credibility of this election process as a whole is in great doubt.

"ZEC never observed this process because this is not a polling station… [so] those votes that were cast here must be declared null and void from a lay man's point of view," he said.

Makodza said the rest of the police force is expected to vote on the scheduled date. However, the opposition has rejected the ballot as illegal and non-credible.

Gideon Shoko, MDC Alliance provincial chief election officer sleeps by makeshift polling booths [Tendai Marima/Al Jazeera]

For nearly two decades under Mugabe, past elections were marred by violence, accusations of the security forces' partisanship and controversy over the opposition's access to the voter's roll.

In 2013, the MDC's lack of access to the electoral roll resulted in a court challenge and poll boycott as the opposition and Western governments doubted the credibility of Mugabe's victory.

Chamisa, who previously told Al Jazeera the credibility of the poll is a "remote possibility," said this time the opposition will not contest against the ruling ZANU-PF party if the alliance feels the vote is fraudulent.

"We are not going to make the mistake of 2013, we are not going into an election not knowing how we have been robbed. We are not going to be robbed. Our clear agenda is that we are not going into the election if these things are not fixed, but we will go into the election," he insisted.

But President Emmerson Mnangagwa is adamant he is keen to break with the iron grip of Mugabe, his former mentor. For the first time since 2002, western observers have been accredited to monitor the polls, however, EU election observers last week urged ZEC to improve transparency in a poll the mission has described as "a critical test for Zimbabwe's reform".

Chamisa has raised his concerns with regional and international observers. Last week, EU election observers urged ZEC to improve transparency in a poll the mission has described as "a critical test for Zimbabwe's reform".

But to add fire to growing fury, Pachedu, an independent audit of the voter's roll by a local consultancy group, has alleged that more than 250,000 "ghost voters" rank among the list of 5.7 million registered voters.

However, the electoral body rejected the claim and according to Netsai Mushonga, a ZEC commissioner, Zimbabwe's voters' roll is in "excellent" condition.

"Our voters roll is an excellent and clean document. What these people are simply seeing are [repeated] names of people, but unique identifiers are the national ID number and as last resort, fingerprints. We have ensured the roll is clean" she told Al Jazeera.

Reviews of the voters' roll also found a registered voter as old as 141 and another 134 years, raising concern among critics that the credibility of the ballot is at risk.

Pachedu expressed strong concerns with ZEC's process, and said the numerous errors in their findings could not be rectified in time for the polls.

"The number of issues we have found makes the voters roll unfit for the task of holding a credible election.

"For ZEC to boost confidence at this point, it will require a full independent audit of not just the voters roll, but the whole electoral operation. We cannot imagine this being possible in time to hold elections on 30 July," Pachedu said in an email.

Follow Tendai Marima on Twitter: @i_amten

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