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Issue Date:  March 21, 2008

Confusion expected on Zimbabwe election day

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

In the weeks and days leading up to Zimbabwe’s national elections, the government has barred all but official bodies from providing voter education. Civil society and church groups fear the ban will lead to massive confusion on election day, and the confusion is insurance that the government of Robert Mugabe will be returned to power.

Many private organizations, such as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, part of the Zimbabwe Catholic bishops’ conference, have conducted voter education programs in every election cycle since 1980.

Voter education programs offer basic information on how and when to register to vote. They also teach people the basic mechanics of voting, such as where to correctly put the “X” so that the ballot paper is not invalidated.

Voter education is a special concern this year, church workers and other civil society groups say, because unlike past elections, voters this year will decide on candidates for four offices. Past elections were for a single office. This year, people will cast ballots for president, a member of parliament, a senator and a local council representative.

Papua Hove, a secondary school teacher, told NCR that he only learned recently that he would be voting for four candidates on election day. He had read about it in a privately owned weekly newspaper.

“I didn’t know this is what voters would be doing. I’m sure there will be confusion behind the ballot,” Hove said.

An official with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace told NCR that its personnel have heard similar statements of surprise many times in recent days.

At a training workshop for would-be election monitors recently, a paralegal officer with a local nongovernmental organization told NCR that the ban on voter education has been a frustration and a worry. The agencies approved to conduct voter education are not reaching out to the voters, the officer said. “We know many people have not been fully furnished with what the [March 29] elections mean, but there is nothing we can do.”

Mugabe has ruled the country with an iron fist since its independence from Britain in 1980.

Critics and Western diplomats accuse him of electoral fraud, and his justice minister recently told state media that Mugabe would only invite “friendly” countries to send observers to the coming elections.

Already, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission -- the government-appointed body running the country’s elections -- has refused to say when election results will be announced. The commission has said it expects to see delays in the voting process because of the changed election format and this will delay results.

The writer’s name is being withheld because of the dangers of reporting in Zimbabwe.

National Catholic Reporter, March 21, 2008

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