By Belinda C. Malunga
Mike Murenzvi ‘s article “Does it cost too much to run for office in Zimbabwe”, published recently on newZWire, analysed the nomination fees for candidates in the upcoming elections. He urged party supporters to donate to their preferred political causes, arguing that the fees were reasonable and affordable.
I challenge his view and argue that the high nomination fees have negative consequences for our democracy.
The nomination court has closed, and the campaign season has begun. But the outrageous nomination fees set by The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) cast a dark shadow over the whole process. The fees are unfair, discriminatory, and anti-democratic. They ranged from US$200 (up from US$50) for council candidates to US$20,000 (from US$1000) for presidential candidates. They were imposed without any clear or transparent justification or consideration of the economic situation of our country. As a result, many candidates could not afford the fees and had to drop out of the race.
The Democratic Union of Zimbabwe announced that its presidential candidate, Robert Chapman, had to withdraw due to financial difficulties. It is a tragedy that one of the oldest political parties in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), faced a similar fate. Running for office is already an expensive endeavour that excludes most of citizens, and higher nomination fees only give an unfair advantage to the ruling party and its allies, who have access to state funding and resources. This undermines the whole democratic process.
ZEC has failed to explain or justify the increased fees. According to Section 67 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, ZEC has a constitutional duty to ensure free and fair elections, which means creating a level playing field where democracy can thrive. Equality is the fundamental principle of democracy, but there is no equality in a system that only favours those who can afford high fees.
The suggestion, expressed in Murenzvi’s article, that candidates should extend begging bowls to their supporters is insensitive. The World Bank reports that 49% of Zimbabweans live in extreme poverty. It is unjust to ask poor people to fund political campaigns when they already pay taxes that fund the Electoral Commission. It is also impractical, in a country where most people live on less than a dollar a day and support the state in various ways. This makes the democratic process inaccessible and unattractive to the majority and increases voter apathy.
The incumbent has presided over a chaotic monetary system for the past five years, which affected the aspiring candidates during the nomination process. As a result, the only two female candidates in this race, Linda Masarira and Elisabeth Valerio, failed to file their papers on time. The ruling party has a clear advantage over the opposition. Increasing the nomination fees and expecting the opposition to depend on donations from the poor masses is not fair or democratic.
It is also an insult to the sacrifices that were made to secure majority rule in Zimbabwe. Many people fought and died for our democracy and the right to choose and vote for their leaders. They did not want money to be the deciding factor in who can run for office or who can vote. It is high time that ZEC respected and upheld its vision.
Plutocracy should not determine the fate of our country. Democracy is a national project that requires the involvement and representation of all citizens, not just a group of elites who are out of touch with the realities of the ordinary people.
Sorting out the chaff
Some might argue that high nomination fees are needed to prevent a flood of candidates and to weed out the unqualified. I reject this view. There are better ways to sort out the chaff, such as a rigorous vetting process by the parties and the people themselves. Being able to raise and pay exorbitant fees does not ensure good leadership. On the contrary, it might create room for corruption, where candidates feel that they have to recoup their investments once they are in office.
The current political culture in Zimbabwe is one where the people expect to receive goodies from candidates. This culture needs to change to create a more democratic and accountable system. Until then, the ruling party holds an unfair advantage over the opposition, as it uses public funds and projects to buy votes. ZEC has the responsibility to narrow and close that gap, and as we head to the polls, the hope is that this is the last time that ZEC is found wanting.
Our democracy is too young and fragile to be dabbling in politics of exclusion. Any citizen who believes that they have what it takes to run for office should be able to do so without financial barriers. The people should decide the rest, when they cast their vote, just as those who fought for majority rule intended.