Human Rights Watch research in May, including interviews across the country, found that security force involvement in the electoral process, abusive laws that remain in effect, and violence and intimidation by the ruling party all contribute to an environment that is not conducive to free and fair elections.

“President Mnangagwa needs to go beyond mere rhetoric and take genuine steps to level the playing field for all candidates and their parties,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “A key test will be whether state media give equal coverage and access to all political parties without bias or favor.”

Zimbabwe’s military and other state security forces have for many years interfered in the nation’s political and electoral affairs, adversely affecting the right of Zimbabweans to vote for the candidates of their choice. Mnangagwa and his administration should level the electoral playing field by preventing the military from engaging in partisan politics or interfering in electoral processes, and taking strong action to deter violence and intimidation by the military during the campaign period and elections. The military leadership should publicly demonstrate its commitment to a fair election process and not interfere with the outcome of the vote.

The role of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which is charged with overseeing the 2018 election process, is also of particular concern. The commission has not demonstrated independence or impartiality. At least 15 percent of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s secretariat are serving or former military officials. The military should help make the commission more independent and professional by removing serving military officers from the body, Human Rights Watch said.

The government’s failure to repeal or significantly revise key laws or to address the partisan conduct of the police further undercuts free elections. Repressive laws needing reform include the Public Order and Security Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. All of these laws have been used to arrest peaceful protesters and censor critical media. The lack of reform places a greater burden on the police to ensure that the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly are respected during the campaign period.

Human Rights Watch research found widespread intimidation, harassment, and threats of violence mainly by supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party to coerce members of the public to hand over their voter registration slips and commit to vote for ZANU-PF. Party members have intimidated voters by reminding them of violence during past elections and threatening to withdraw food aid if they did not vote for ZANU-PF, Human Rights Watch found. Between March 24 and April 1, a domestic human rights group, Heal Zimbabwe Trust, recorded 31 human rights violations in 17 districts relating to the election campaign. The group described intimidation and forced attendance at political gatherings, including by school children, and disruption of opposition political gatherings.

Incidents of political violence and intimidation characterized the primary elections in May 2018 to choose parliamentary election candidates in the ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) party. The MDC-T appears to have established a militia-type, uniformed youth group called the Vanguard, which was implicated in several cases of violence against the former party deputy president Thokozani Khupe and her supporters who have since formed a rival faction of the party.

All political parties should ensure that their members act peacefully, allowing others to associate freely and express themselves no matter their political views, and permit citizens to vote without fear of violence, Human Rights Watch said.

Zimbabwe has an obligation to allow each citizen to vote in genuine periodic elections, as provided under the country’s constitution, and guaranteed in international and African human rights conventions that Zimbabwe has ratified. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections, to which Zimbabwe is a party, call for full participation of citizens in the political process, freedom of association, political tolerance, equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media, independence of the judiciary, independence of the media, impartiality of the electoral institutions, and voter education.

Careful monitoring of the election and the campaign throughout the country is especially important considering the need for legal and electoral reforms, Human Rights Watch said. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union, the European Union, and other groups should provide competent international observers to monitor the campaign period and elections. The Zimbabwe government should ensure that all electoral observers can move freely throughout the country and can access all legislation, regulations, and institutions governing the electoral process, consistent with the SADC Principles and Guidelines.

“As Zimbabwe’s elections draw close, the government needs to ensure that conditions are right for people to vote for candidates of their choice in an environment that is free of intimidation, fear, and violence,” Mavhinga said. “President Mnangagwa should act to ensure credible, free, and fair elections.”