Unfree and unfair in Zimbabwe

2008-03-21 00:00

For anyone concerned that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe might get away with yet another stolen election, it is a great relief to know that the election has been declared “free and fair”. That’s the assessment of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the South African government.

Their view might encounter some scepticism, since the election hasn’t actually been held yet — it only takes place on March 29. Nevertheless, our leaders in their clairvoyant wisdom know not only the result — Mugabe wins — but that the poll was substantially free of rigging.

Being willing to rely on the self-assessment of the incumbent Zanu-PF government for their opinion on the election is a brilliant stroke by South Africa and SADC. It saves them the cost and aggravation of dispatching truly independent election observers to carry out their task scrupulously. It also reassures Uncle Bob, as he sails along for his sixth consecutive term, that he is still loved and respected by his neighbours.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi this week summed it up succinctly for the Mugabe acolytes in the African National Congress and SADC. Mugabe should be allowed to stay in power until he dies and not be “disturbed” by elections, Gaddafi said. African governments should ignore attempts by the former colonial powers to compel the adoption of democracy, a system of government that is not viable on the continent.

The African National Congress’s approach is more subtle. Democracy is, in fact, thriving in Africa and Mugabe’s success at winning successive “free and fair” elections is some proof thereof. This demands nifty footwork on occasion. Following threats by police and military chiefs that they would not accept the election result if Mugabe loses, the ANC urged them not to take sides in this month’s elections and to respect the outcome of the vote. They can afford to do so, since the Mugabe win has been preordained. Why else would SADC, of whose observer mission South Africa is part, feel it should stress that the only countries who can express an opinion on the Zimbabwean election are those allowed to send observers, those whom Mugabe describes as “friends”?

The view of the European Union nations and the United States, SADC stresses, is irrelevant, since Mugabe banned their observer missions. Not even SADC, a body that much overestimates its own importance, can fail to know that the reason why Mugabe does not want Western observers and independent journalists around is the same reason why the Chinese don’t want them in Tibet.

Sadly for Zimbabweans, contrary to what deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad asserts, conditions are not conducive to democratic elections, not even “on paper”, as he put it.

• There are too few independent observers — SADC is sending a mere 120 — to cover a large country in which travel is difficult.

• The polling stations have been distributed to favour the rural areas, where Mugabe is strongest, at the cost of the urban constituencies, where he has minimal support. It means that literally hundreds of thousands of urban voters will not be able to be processed to vote, as was the case previously.

• Opposition parties have had their meetings disrupted and their supporters attacked, beaten and killed. They have been excluded from using the state-run media to campaign.

• Opposition parties claim that the voters’ roll contains up to three million “ghost” voters who do not exist, but will be used to inflate the Zanu-PF vote. Expatriate Zimbabweans, who are mostly opposition supporters and of whom there are another three million, have been excluded from voting.

• Factor in that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is beholden to Zanu-PF, that police can enter the polling booth to “assist” you to make your mark and one is left gobsmacked at Pahad’s optimism.

Something, though, might yet upset Mugabe’s schemes. The participation of Simba Makoni, the former Zanu-PF insider who has broken ranks to run against Mugabe, might inhibit or confuse the worst manipulations that took place in previous elections. In which case, there is an outside chance of an upset result. Even then, it certainly won’t be “free and fair” in the colonial sense of the phrase.

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