Asking for a miracle

2008-03-29 00:00

Long before the first ballot is crossed in Zimbabwe’s election today, Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF has already manipulated the election process to trip the opposition and stay in power even longer.

Indeed, the political playing field ahead of the country’s poll to elect a new president, parliament and local councillors is so uneven in favour of Mugabe that for the opposition to win, in spite of their popularity, is to ask for a miracle.

What happens in the run-up to an election is a crucial element to judge whether it is free and fair. Yet, sadly, more often than not, African regional and continental election observer missions concentrate mostly on what actually happens on the day of the elections.

This Zimbabwean election is a case in point. Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980, is vulnerable for the first time. This is in spite of the fact that he is using every dirty trick in the book to steal the election. Or that the main opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is divided into two factions.

Mugabe’s message, that he is the true custodian of the Zimbabwean liberation struggle, is now falling on stony ground, partially because his former ally, Simba Makoni, has defected and is also challenging the old liberation leader turned despot.

But importantly, Mugabe has so mismanaged the economy that blaming “imperialists” and “colonialists” does not sound convincing anymore, even to his most hard-headed fans. Two of Zanu-PF’s original founders have also distanced themselves from him.

Nevertheless, because of South African, African and regional pressure to get an election in Zimbabwe at any costs — in spite of the unfair political playing field — in order to show “progress”, the Zimbabwean opposition has again entered an election race that is staked in favour of Mugabe.

Zanu-PF announced the election date without consulting with the opposition. Mugabe and his strategists reckoned a quick election date, with a short run-up, could catch the opposition off guard.

Furthermore, cash-starved opposition groups are denied external funding, yet the ruling party has all the might and state resources (what is left of them) and foreign government donations, including from China, Libya and Iran.

The Zimbabwean Electoral Commission is openly biased in favour of Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party. Zanu-PF’s ability to hold on to power rests heavily on whether it can hold on to its increasingly tenuous support base in the rural areas.

The South African pilot who was to ferry MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to key rural areas to campaign, was arrested just because he transported the opposition leader.

This meant Tsvangirai could not reach crucial rural constituents. Chiefs are being used not only to campaign for Zanu-PF in the rural areas, but to cajole people into voting for the party. The Zimbabwean government has made sure there are not enough polling stations in the urban areas where its support base has long been eroded.

Cynically, Mugabe has invoked presidential powers to enact a law to allow police inside polling booths. This was ostensibly to empower the police to help disabled voters. In fact, it is more likely aimed at disabling voters who do not want to vote for Zanu-PF.

The police and other security services have openly sided with the Zanu-PF government. Instead of being neutral, they harass opposition supporters.

Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe.

Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri said he will not allow “Western-backed puppets” to rule. The head of the prison service, retired army major-general Paradzayi Zimondi, has said the same.

Astonishingly, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission chairman George Chiweshe said the law does not allow him to act against leading security forces if they make threats. The millions of Zimbabweans abroad, because they fled the economic collapse caused by Mugabe, are not allowed to vote.

The ruling Zanu-PF have tried hard to have the election coverage “on-message”, banning independent media outlets and journalists who may give more objective coverage of the elections. Most of the important local media are in government hands, including the only daily newspaper, the Herald. The government closed down the independent Daily News some time ago.

The broadcasting media is in state hands. The Zimbabwean government have only given outside journalists covering the election accreditation for up to the day of the elections. In fact, some election observers got only similar limited accreditation.

This means the media and many observer missions will be unable to cover the counting of the ballots and the post-election period. In a country where the majority are starving, food is being distributed to those who vote for Zanu-PF.

Just ahead of the elections, the Zanu-PF government have policies aimed at bribing the electorate, such as the pay increase to civil servants, or the sudden promises of new housing and farms to the poor if they support the ruling Zanu-PF. At least, such has been the country’s economic decline that Mugabe is running out of bribes to pay voters.

The government has cherry-picked who the international observers should be. Not surprisingly, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), so far spectacularly spineless in its peer review of the Zanu-PF government, is one of the Zimbabwean government’s favourite observer missions.

Just before South Africa’s observer delegation left Pretoria for Zimbabwe, Kingsley Mamabolo, the Foreign Affairs deputy director-general for Africa, said the political atmosphere ahead of the Zimbabwean elections was “calmer and more tolerant” than during the ill-fated 2005 one.

South Africa’s observers went as part of the SADC delegation. Mamabolo said: “We want to help them have as credible elections as possible. We will stay out of their politics. We will only go as far as our invitation permits.”

Presumably, the Zimbabwean “invitation” precludes the South African observers looking into the Zimbabwean government’s manipulation of the media. It also appears to exclude the late announcement of the elections, or inspecting the integrity of the voters roll.

The South African observer mission will also not look into new Zanu-PF government policies to buy voters’ support.

President Thabo Mbeki and the SA government say the conditions that will ensure Zimbabwe have free and fair elections are in place and that all that remains are “procedural” issues. Mbeki has insisted that his mediation efforts in Zimbabwe on behalf of the SADC have been successful, saying “there has been agreement among the parties on all substantive issues”.

Until the South African government and African governments measure the political conditions in the run-up to elections, and whether the opposition have the same access to resources and freedom as the ruling parties, and civil society and the media can operate freely before declaring elections “free and fair”, substantial democracy will remain an elusive dream for many on the continent.

•W.M. Gumede is the author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.

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