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Zimbabwe's disabled battle to vote

Zimbabwe's electoral system is described as hostile to disabled voters like the blind, and with none in parliament or government.

BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE // Tsvarai Mungoni, 40, is educated and highly politically conscious, but he says he has always had a niggling feeling that tells him that his political awareness is hollow. Mr Mungoni, who is blind, has never voted because he feels the electoral system disenfranchises him. "I am visually impaired and willing to exercise what, in theory, is my inalienable right to vote, but I am incapacitated.

"Our voting system does not guarantee us exercising that right freely and democratically because it does not provide for Braille ballot papers. "In fact, right from political campaigns to the day of voting there is absolutely no literature in Braille." Because of the absence of Braille ballot papers, electoral law says blind voters are assisted to vote by officers presiding over polling stations, in the presence of a police officer and agents of contesting political parties.

The presiding officer asks the blind voter whom he or she wants to vote for, and then marks the ballot for the preferred candidate. Mr Mungoni said this is degrading and violates the concept of a secret ballot. "We are adults. That is why we are eligible to vote, but we don't want to be treated like we are helpless. I do not know the political affiliation of the officers, and in our volatile political conditions you don't know what will follow.

"You don't even know if they mark the ballot paper correctly. So you ask yourself why vote when that can invite violence on you," said Mr Mungoni, programme officer for the National Association of Societies for the Care of the Handicapped (Nascoh). The World Health Organization estimates that 10 per cent, or 1.3 million Zimbabweans, are disabled. "This is a significant part of the population that can unseat or vote a president into office, but they are disenfranchised," said Farai Mukuta, Nascoh director.

He said the electoral system is also insensitive to the deaf and those who use wheelchairs. "Political parties also exclude them because you don't find campaign messages in Braille or sign language," Mr Mukuta said. "At the polling stations you won't [find] officers who can use sign language. "In most cases, the polling stations are too far away so the physically challenged cannot travel the long distances.

"If they get to the stations, most will find them inaccessible to people on wheelchairs because the buildings do not have ramps." He said because Zimbabweans vote in their localities, averaging seven kilometres in radius, it is possible for political agents to track down blind voters who vote against their candidates. Mr Mukuta gave an example of a blind voter from Ruwa, a small town east of Harare, who in elections in March last year picked a Zanu-PF candidate and was later given presents.

"Considering the violence that happened between the first election in March and the presidential election run-off in June what could have happened to the voter if he had voted for the opposition?" Mr Mukuta asked. After losing the first round of elections to Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, Zanu-PF, the party of the president, Robert Mugabe, is accused of waging a violent campaign for the June 2008 run-off.

Mr Tsvangirai, now prime minister in the unity government, withdrew from the re-run, citing violence he says claimed up to 100 of his supporters. Out of a parliament and cabinet totalling 380 figures, none is disabled. "The president used to appoint a disabled person to parliament or cabinet," Mr Mukuta said. "This time there is none. But we cannot wait for his benevolence. Let the disabled seek political office on their own."

Nascoh recently started a five-year programme to provide voting materials and encourage the disabled people to register as voters and then exercise their right. "Voting is not for us," said Sibonginkosi Nleya, who uses a wheelchair. "It will be good if the law allows a disabled person to be helped by a relative or any trusted individual during voting, not strangers." Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, director of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, said the electoral system is hostile to disabled people as candidates and voters.

"But it must be noted that while the disabled are basically excluded from our voting system, other minorities are also sidelined because of the first-past-the-post voting system we use. "Proportional representation is best because it caters for minority groups, including the disabled to be elected. "If we have such people holding political offices, chances are high they will lead the way in ensuring the handicapped are involved in mainstream politics."

tmpofu@thenational.ae