HARARE, ZIMBABWE — For months, Agnella Mazayi, 39, bought groceries for hundreds of families in need, donated blankets to keep them warm during Harare’s harsh winters and provided cattle medication for farmers in her community. As she conducted door-to-door campaigns, Mazayi looked forward to making her debut as a candidate for Parliament in this year’s harmonized election, the first since 2018. The president, members of Parliament and councilors will all be elected Wednesday.
But Mazayi’s plans came to an abrupt halt when the nomination fee to participate in the elections rose by 1,900% — from 50 United States dollars to 1,000 dollars.
“I was astonished to learn that the parliamentary nomination fee was 1,000 U.S. dollars. I could not afford such a large sum,” says Mazayi, who was funding her campaign with profits from her hair salon. “For a period, I was depressed. All of my efforts were futile, and I was denied the opportunity to represent my supporters.”
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe now charges some of the highest nomination fees in the region. In June, the government, through the Statutory Instrument 144 of 2022, increased the presidential nomination fee from 1,000 to 20,000 U.S. dollars. Nomination fees for a constituency election increased from 50 to 1,000 U.S. dollars. A political party must pay 238,000 U.S. dollars (1.5 billion Zimbabwean dollars) to field its full slate of parliamentary and presidential candidates. This fee increase has affected the participation of candidates, especially in groups historically underrepresented in politics, such as women, youth and people with disabilities.
Women make up nearly 31% of Zimbabwe’s Parliament, primarily due to the 60 seats reserved for them in the 2013 and 2018 elections to encourage gender parity. Only 9.26% of the women in Parliament were elected. Historically, there have been no quotas for the youth, but starting this election, 10 of the available 270 seats are reserved for members between the ages of 21 and 35.
Comparing nomination fees
Other countries on the continent have significantly lower nomination fees than Zimbabwe’s. In Kenya’s 2022 election, the nomination fee for presidential and parliamentary elections was 1,400 and 140 U.S. dollars, respectively. Women and people with disabilities paid half that amount. In Gambia, presidential candidates pay 250 U.S. dollars, while those seeking parliamentary seats must part with 125 U.S. dollars.
On the higher end is Democratic Republic of Congo, whose presidential and parliamentary nomination fees stood at 1,000 and 600 U.S. dollars in 2018. These are still far below Zimbabwe’s fees, especially for the presidential seat.
Takunda Tsunga, the legal and advocacy officer at the Election Resource Centre, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for free and fair elections, says the new fee has disadvantaged women and youth seeking to participate in elections.
“Taking into consideration the economic context Zimbabwe is in, the nomination fees have a secondary effect of making Zimbabwean politics elitist,” he says.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
Tsunga says the fees are now among the highest in the region.
“In Botswana, for example, the nomination fee for presidential candidates is approximately 25,000 Botswanan pula [about 1,900 U.S. dollars], while in Zambia, the nomination fee increased to 95,000 Zambian kwacha [5,000 U.S. dollars, up from 60,000 kwacha] but well below the standards set in Zimbabwe. Zambia even extends inclusivity by ensuring that nomination fees for women and youth are lower than that for male candidates,” he says.
A 2023 report by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy states that exorbitant party nomination fees and onerous campaign costs serve as an even greater disincentive to women and youth, two often vulnerable groups at the bottom of the income distribution.
“I am a mother and I own a business. I had to finance my campaign from the business, and that was already difficult,” Mazayi says. “I thought my participation would change my circumstances and that of my peers.”
Political space for serious contenders?
Prolific Mataruse, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, says the increased nomination fee is aimed at weeding out candidates that aren’t serious contenders.
“The problem for [the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission] has been how to avoid the 2018 problem, where we probably had the longest ballot paper in election history, with 23 presidential candidates and about 55 political parties contesting for parliamentary seats,” Mataruse says. “How do you distinguish pretenders and contenders in such a case?”
He adds that the country must be vigilant against a situation where money becomes a key electoral determinant.
“At candidate level, the issue is the party. A viable, committed, serious party with membership and structures should be able to raise the monies for president and [members of Parliament]. We should, however, guard against the capture of parties and candidates by moneybags,” he says.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
But the leaders of small political parties such as the United African National Council say the elite and the financially viable parties are already in control, a situation that disadvantages both the voter and good leaders who do not have financial muscle.
Michael Nyamande, the secretary general of the UANC, a party formed in 1972, says they were only able to field one presidential and two parliamentary candidates, instead of 210 candidates, in this year’s election. He says in past elections, they were able to field more candidates.
“We were hindered by the exorbitant nomination fees,” he says. “We could not afford them.”
Challenging the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission
Tapiwanashe Chiriga, advocacy officer at the nonprofit Heal Zimbabwe Trust, decided to challenge the matter in court.
“I felt the urge and moral duty to act against the disenfranchisement of the poor in electoral processes because the options for the voters were limited and the voters’ interests became secondary,” he says.
Chiriga adds that such fees mean that democracy, political participation and the quest to serve the country in elective office is no longer within reach for the people. “Democracy that is for sale is not democracy at all but ‘dollacracy and democrazy’ that is reserved for the few elite rich,” he says.
The courts ruled that Chiriga’s case was not urgent, and it was not heard until after the new nomination fees were passed.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
“The matter is still on the ordinary roll and will be heard, but it will be moot [as the elections will have passed]. The High Court could have handled our matter better. While I respect the court’s decision, I don’t agree with its finding,” Chiriga says. “Our matter was urgent.”
Women and the Zimbabwean election
Linda Masarira, an aspiring candidate who failed to file her presidential candidature for this election, says the nomination fees violate the constitution.
Masarira, who was a presidential candidate in the 2018 elections, says Section 67 of the constitution enshrines the right of every Zimbabwean to join, form or participate in political activities in a party of their choice.
She says the nomination fee should be scrapped altogether or, if maintained, should be reasonable and accessible, so that anyone who feels compelled to serve in public office has the ability to do so.
“My assessment, though, is that this was just a tool that was used to elbow out other presidential contenders from the race,” she says.
Masarira says citizens are affected because they do not have a variety of choices and are forced to continue operating in a binary political system, with the ruling ZANU PF party and the main opposition dominating the political landscape. This leaves the electorate with little freedom to choose their leaders.
Since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, ZANU PF, the ruling party, has held power for 43 years. It controls more than two-thirds of Parliament, with 145 of 210 seats.
Mazayi, who is still coming to terms with her disappointment, says she was inspired to run for Parliament by the desire to improve economic circumstances for her generation. “I was motivated by the need to create employment for many Zimbabweans who are still unemployed as a result of the country’s economic turmoil.”
U.S. dollars only
In addition to the high nomination fees, potential candidates faced another challenge: They were required to pay the fee in U.S. dollars.
“I became a victim of inconsistent monetary policies,” Masarira says. “I became a victim of my own country refusing to accept its own local currency.”
Like Masarira, Nyamande, of the UANC, wanted to pay the presidential nomination fee in local currency, but the ZEC refused. For their presidential nomination, the party had to pay U.S. dollars in cash, he says.
“They refused the local currency, which is a mode of payment for this country,” Nyamande says.
In a statement to Global Press Journal, a ZEC representative did not address questions on the subject.
Outlook for Zimbabwe’s elections
Mazayi hopes that she will be able to take part in elections in the future. “For now, there is nothing we can do. We can only hope that future elections do not include such barriers, especially for women and the youth,” she says.
Nyamande, though, remains skeptical. “With the kind of economic environment that we have, such figures are exorbitant. To be a good leader, you do not need to have money,” he says. “Any fool can raise 20,000 U.S. dollars, and it doesn’t mean that there is good leadership.”
Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe.