PP52: Bounded autonomy: What limits Zimbabweans’ trust in their courts and electoral commission?

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Policy papers
2018
52
Matthias Krönke

After the Constitutional Court upheld the election results of 30 July 2018, Zimbabwe’s leading opposition party ended its online public response with the following message to newly confirmed President Emmerson Mnangagwa: “You can rig the elections. You can capture ZEC [Zimbabwe Electoral Commission]. You can capture [the] judiciary. But you will never capture the people. Their will shall prevail. The people shall govern!” (Movement for Democratic Change, 2018). While some might dismiss it as partisan rhetoric, the MDC statement points to critical issues for Zimbabwe’s democracy – the autonomy, and perceived autonomy, of the country’s courts and electoral commission.

This policy paper analyzes public trust in these two institutions. Though intended to act as independent custodians of the Constitution and the electoral process, both the judiciary and the electoral commission are frequently accused of being beholden to political leaders. This year’s election is not the first to be accompanied by allegations of vote rigging, intimidation, and politically tainted court decisions. Allegations of bias are frequently leveled against judges from the High Court and Supreme Court, even between election cycles. Yet previous analysis of Afrobarometer data has shown that Zimbabwe’s courts are among the most trusted on the continent (Logan, 2017). And trust in the ZEC has doubled since 2010. How do these seemingly contradictory views fit together?

Our analysis of public opinion data suggests that citizens trust these two institutions within bounds. For court cases involving only ordinary citizens and technical electoral issues such as the rollout of the biometric voter registration (BVR), the judiciary and the ZEC enjoy substantial public confidence. But faced with politically sensitive issues, they no longer find broad popular support.

Afrobarometer survey data show clear differences in trust levels among citizens over time and along party lines. Public confidence in the judiciary is heavily dependent on whether it is perceived to hold the president and the powerful elite that surrounds him to account. Similarly, trust in the electoral commission depends less on its ability to handle managerial tasks in preparation for Election Day and more on its ability to ensure an accurate count of ballots and the resolution of post-election conflicts.

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