Concerns are being raised about the voter registration process ahead of Zimbabwe's presidential and parliamentary elections, just nine months away. The main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), claims that the process is being abused, while an independent poll-monitoring organisation says the timeframe needs to be extended.
Rural voters had to produce proof of residence to register, which was usually supplied by the local traditional leader, but most areas were controlled by chiefs who supported the ruling ZANU-PF party.
"The traditional leaders are very compromised and are refusing to write such letters for people known to be MDC supporters. That obviously means we are being disadvantaged, because our supporters cannot register to vote," alleged Nelson Chamisa, a spokesman for the MDC faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
Registrar-General Tobaiwa Mudede, who is in charge of the process, said there was nothing amiss; the national identity card or passport did not always provide current information on the individual's physical address. Another election official said proof of residence had been a constitutional requirement for registration since 2002.
Traditional leaders in rural areas receive vehicles and salaries from the government, and their homes have been electrified under the rural electrification programme.
In urban areas, where the MDC is strongest, prospective voters who wished to register had to get a letter from the property owner confirming their street address. Most urban dwellers rent accommodation and a large number of property owners have emigrated, while many Zimbabweans of foreign descent living in urban areas are excluded from the voting process.
Not enough time
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) said insufficient time had been allowed for registration. "We are deeply concerned that the exercise has not been adequately publicised, which might result in most prospective voters being unable to register," said Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, director of ZESN.
She suggested that the registration period, which ends on 17 August, be extended by at least four months.
"We believe that the advertisements in the print media are not an appropriate and sufficient medium of communication of this strategic component of the electoral process," Chipfunde-Vava said, because people in rural areas did not have access to, or could not afford, newspapers such as the official daily, The Herald, which cost Z$25,000 (about US$0.20 at the parallel market exchange rate of Z$120,000 to US$1).
ZESN warned that under the Southern African Development Community's guidelines for conducting elections, the government had to ensure full participation by the majority of Zimbabweans, and also that the process was as fully inclusive as possible.
Since 2000 Zimbabwe's elections have been characterised by allegations of impropriety, violence and intimidation by both the main political parties.
Chipfunde-Vava's organisation has been advocating the establishment of an independent electoral commission that would be responsible for voter registration and education.
"The current situation where a department of the Ministry of Home Affairs conducts voter registration, albeit under the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, is undesirable and a potential source of electoral disputes. We believe that that an adequately resourced independent electoral commission should carry out this strategic task."
The MDC's Chamisa alleged that government officials in rural areas were discouraging young voters, who were more inclined to support the opposition, by telling them that the registration process was for people older than 40 years.
In urban areas, he claimed, the electoral office had announced it was only issuing birth certificates and identity documents at this stage, and that voter registration would start later.
Registrar-General Mudede's office dismissed the allegations as untrue.