Far from perfect

2008-04-02 00:00

As I write this it is quite obvious that Robert Mugabe is staring defeat in the face, but that he is playing an extraordinary delaying game with the announcement of the election results.

By noon on Monday the count had been completed in 155 of Zimbabwe’s 210 parliamentary constituencies and the results posted outside the polling stations. They showed that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had 58% of the vote at that point in the presidential race to Mugabe’s 37% and independent candidate Simba Makoni’s five percent.

They also showed that the MDC had won 95 seats in the House of Assembly, to the ruling Zanu-PF’s 40 and the Arthur Mutambara/ independent group’s 20. Which meant that with results still to come from 55 seats, the combined opposition already had a majority in parliament.

Which in turn meant that even if Mugabe could somehow still win the presidential election, perhaps in a run-off vote if Tsvangirai failed to get 50% plus one of the votes cast, he would not be able to govern for he would not command a majority in the legislature.

By Monday night a United States-funded organisation, the Zimbabwe Election Support Group, which had posted 22 000 observers in polling stations around the

country, issued its own projection based on a sample of 435 polling stations, which predicted 49,4% of the vote for Tsvangirai, 41,8% for Mugabe and 8,2% for Makoni — with the combined opposition again having a majority in parliament.

But 14 hours later, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) had still announced official results from only 89 constituencies — showing the MDC and Zanu-PF running neck and neck.

Some candidates I spoke to told me they had known the results in their constituencies and been declared the winners by the presiding polling officers four hours after the polls closed on Saturday night — but 60 hours later their results had still not been officially an-nounced.

What was going on here? Why the extraordinary delay, and the selective, widely spaced official announcements that made it look as though the election was a neck-and-neck affair? What game was Mugabe playing?

Inevitably this crazy situation led to speculation that the figures were being manipulated within the ZEC. The pattern bore an ominous similarity to what happened in the stolen 2002 election, when early results showed Tsvangirai taking a big lead, at which point the announcements suddenly stopped. When they were resumed several hours later Mugabe had surged ahead.

Suspicion of foul play gained ground on Monday morning when Tendai Biti, the MDC secretary-general, told reporters that party contacts close to the Zec were warning that massive rigging was indeed taking place, aimed at giving Mugabe a 52% majority and Zanu-PF 111 House of Assembly seats.

But later in the day, other reliable sources told me the Zec was in fact holding its ground in the face of heavy pressure from Zanu-PF to deliver the outcome it wanted.

By the time you read this we shall surely know the official result as announced, which could be anything from a triumphant regime change bringing relief at last to the suffering people of Zimbabwe, or a Kenya-style bloodbath as the people rise up to protest another stolen African election and Mugabe’s armed forces crack down on them.

Or maybe another fatalistic acceptance of defeat and continued hopelessness on the part of the Zimbabwean people, with the rest of Africa, including our own proud democracy, accepting that in a spirit of benighted neglect.

Or maybe, just maybe, the go-slow was the regime playing for time, giving itself time to clean up and shred incriminating evidence of its shady past before leaving office.

At this point about the only thing that is clear about this murky election is that it was in no way free or fair. That much has been glaringly obvious for months, as this column has repeatedly noted. If Tsvangirai and his party do pull it off, they will have done so against the most daunting odds.

Yet the Southern African Development Community (SADC) ob-server team gave the election a green light. It was, they said in their official statement on Sunday, “peaceful and a true reflection of the will of the people”.

Well, maybe, if the results do in the end reflect what obviously was the will of the people. But the judgment was crass in its irresponsibility. Firstly, because it was issued prematurely, before the count, which was always going to be dodgy, had got under way. And, more seriously, because it completely ignored the gross violations of SADC’s own required criteria for the holding of free and fair elections.

Elections are not just about polling day itself, which Mugabe ensured was reasonably peaceful to fool the gullible “friendly” observers who were the only

foreign watchdogs allowed into the country. It is mainly about having a free and fair election campaign in the months leading up to polling day. The playing field must be level, particularly since the party in power starts with a clear advantage, as one would expect the advocates of affirmative action to understand better than most.

The SADC criteria recognise this, but the SADC observer team ignored it. The SADC criteria require equitable access to the media; the Zimbabwe media, nearly all state-owned, were hopelessly biased in favour of Zanu-PF. The MDC hardly got any space or air time at all.

Free campaigning is essential, but MDC members and supporters were harassed, intimidated, imprisoned, beaten, kidnapped and even killed throughout the campaign. Tsvangirai himself was savagely beaten with iron bars to within an inch of his life and had to be flown to Johannesburg for emergency treatment.

Permission had to be sought for holding political meetings and was often refused.

The voters’ roll was hopelessly out of date, with some two million dead and departed people still on it, which opened the way for organised “ghost” voting on a massive scale. On top of which an estimated three million people (a quarter of the population) who have crossed into neighbouring countries to escape starvation, were not allowed to vote.

Thousands more were disenfranchised on the spurious ground that one of their parents was born outside Zimbabwe.

Food aid was blatantly misused to “buy” votes.

All of this the SADC statement blithely ignored. It is an old and ongoing problem on this continent: too often African leaders fail to confront the autocrats in their midst. It is a failure that not only gives the continent a bad name but betrays its own long-suffering people.

An early warning to Mugabe to stick strictly to the SADC criteria for free elections or face a thumbs-down verdict from its observer team would have changed the whole nature of this messy election.

But no such warning was ever issued.

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