Observing a Constitutional Referendum in Zimbabwe

Posted by Jean Phillipson
April 23, 2013
Election Official Holds Ballot During Referendum in Zimbabwe

On Thursday, April 25, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto will hold a Facebook chat to discuss U.S. foreign policy and Africa. Support for democracy and the strengthening of democratic institutions -- including free, fair, and transparent elections -- are among the pillars that serve as the foundation of U.S. policy toward Africa.

Zimbabwe held a referendum on its new constitution on Saturday, March 16, paving the way for presidential elections later this year. Zimbabwe's last elections in 2008 were marred by political violence and this referendum vote was the unity government's first opportunity to signal whether Zimbabwe's people will have the opportunity to organize, campaign, and vote peacefully and without partisan interference in parliamentary and presidential elections this year.

With few teams in the field, each diplomatic mission in Zimbabwe was allowed to send just five observers to polling places around the country. I went to a rural area called Tsholotsho, in Matebeleland North province. Driving out to the polling station, we were surprised by an elephant crossing the dirt road. At one point, a couple of kudu (wild antelope) bounded across the road in front of us, a welcome sight after many hours of looking out for donkeys, goats, and cows that outnumber--and are not afraid of--vehicles in this part of the country. I never guessed prior to coming here that I'd be performing a diplomatic observation duty while on safari.

I arrived at the first polling station before 6:30 a.m. and watched a group of seven officials and one police officer gather around the ballot box for a short prayer before opening. The presiding officer ensured everyone concurred the box was empty before sealing it. The officials then meticulously recorded the numbers on the zip ties and ballots they were using. A small line gathered outside; people were ready with their identification, waiting patiently to cast their ballots. Throughout the day, I visited 12 polling stations, covering a large rural area. Two of the stations I went to consisted of tents near the local watering hole, but most were in schools.

Procedurally, the referendum voting went well. This was expected as the referendum was uncontested with all three main political parties campaigning for a "yes" vote. Zimbabwe has always had the technical capacity to run a proper election; the intimidation and violence that have marred the country's political past happen outside of the polling stations and away from foreign observers.

Zimbabwe's constitutional referendum was positive in many ways. The country has been living for 33 years with a frequently-amended, negotiated constitution with antiquated provisions on women's rights among other issues. While the new constitution has sections disliked by some groups, it was negotiated and promoted by all of the major political players and significant members of civil society and passed with 93 percent approval. Our observation work was an opportunity to be prepared for national elections in a few months. Having a front row seat to watch this important part of Zimbabwe's history was an education and an honor, and I very much hope to head out to the bush again to observe Zimbabwe's national elections later this year.

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