Electoral reform debate not for MDC alone

Vincent Kahiya


OF all social-movement tactics, the most successful and

powerful is mass organisation. Not only does it improve the chances for accomplishment but also it multiplies success by the number of participants. Large movements grow most easily where large sectors of the population feel an identical, pressing need.


The current debate within the opposition Movement for Democratic Change on whether or not to contest  the 2005 general election under the current electoral law brings into focus the role of civic society to mobilise and debate a subject of key national importance.


There have been complaints from the MDC leadership that the general public and other social players believe that the push for democratic electoral reform is an agenda for the party, hence they have sat back while politicians have their say.


Groups led by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) last month came up with a draft electoral law bill, which encompasses the 15 MDC demands. The MDC wants Zimbabwe’s electoral law to conform to the 2001 Sadc protocol on electoral standards. This would entail radical amendments to the current Electoral Act, which Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa has ruled out.


ZESN would like to push its white paper as a private member’s bill before the election but this could turn out to be an exercise in futility as government has already tabled another bill to effect cosmetic changes to the electoral law.


Voting only takes two days but those are crucial as they determine the fate of the nation for the next five years and beyond. There is the feeling within the MDC that it has been let down but on the other hand there are those who believe that it is the role of the party to cultivate public support for its policies.


Writing in the Independent last year political commentator Wilbert Mukori said vote-rigging was above party politics. “It was not only Morgan Tsvangirai who was cheated by Mugabe but the whole nation,” said Mukori.


“It is in the interests of even the most passionate Zanu PF supporters that Mugabe should not be allowed to rig elections. If the ruled cannot hold the rulers to account — and elections are the ultimate expression of democratic accountability — then those rulers are free to do as they please irrespective of the suffering and death their acts are causing on the ruled. The MDC should have sought the active participation of civic society, other political parties, those who voted for them as well as those who voted for Mugabe,” he said.


In an interview with the Independent in February, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai said he was leaving options open to either contest the election or drum up popular resistance to the undemocratic electoral laws. Direct action as an option to force Mugabe into effecting reform has been tried before and the results were predictable.


The MDC tested that route last year in the “final push” but this turned out to be a huge failure which exposed the enervated political attitude of the populace wrought by government brutality and intolerance as well as falling living standards. The MDC’s plan was a simple enough call for mass demonstrations. Armed with the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and spurred by its history of crushing dissent the government deployed hundreds of police and party thugs armed to the teeth with instructions to deal with the “insurrection”.


This brutal machinery even followed victims to hospitals to inflict more pain.


Political scientists say direct action creates a history from which future movements can learn. They also believe that it demonstrates the power of united action. When successful, it inspires new movements and encourages authorities into earlier or even preemptive concessions with civic society.


The Zimbabwean story at the moment is different, as popular discontent has not translated into judicious organisational aptitude by civic society to resist unpopular policies. There have been successes though in the past but this was before the emergence of the strong political opposition to Mugabe’s rule.


For almost two weeks in mid-1996, a strike by civil servants paralysed the government. Current MDC leaders Tsvangirai and Gibson Sibanda, as secretary general and president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions respectively, threatened a general strike in solidarity with the civil service. Nearly 100 000 private sector workers were involved in strike action in mid-1997, even extending to poor agricultural workers. Well-organised general strikes and demonstrations in December 1997 and March and November 1998 won nearly universal worker support.


In the high-density suburbs, days of rioting over food and petrol price hikes left several people dead in both January and October 1998.


Amidst these events, other political voices rose. In February 1998, university students inspired by their Indonesian counterparts, also took to the streets, prematurely predicting a Suharto-type endgame for Mugabe. But there was no semblance between the anti-Suharto marches and local students’ protests, which were centred mainly on the demand for bigger grants. The general public did not join the marches and protests, which were crushed by riot police


The further degeneration of the economy and ill-thought-out political policies gave birth to a cross-class alliance composed of organised labour, the constrained petit-bourgeoisie, church-based critics, students,  sympathetic business leaders, academics and various other activists. The alliance, which became the MDC, emerged around issues of accountability and abuse of public funds. It fuelled a growing sentiment that after two decades in power, Mugabe and his ruling Zanu PF could quite possibly be voted down in the 2000 general election.


“An uneasy blend of divergent ideologies might coalesce to (at least) threaten such a feat, though most likely without an ideology sufficiently influenced by a broader, deeper constituency of workers and the poor,” wrote leftist political scientist Patrick Bond in 1999. “Nor would it have much prospect of either denting the state-owned broadcast and daily press monopoly’s hackish support for Mugabe or breaking the apparent lock Zanu PF enjoys on traditional rural loyalties.”


He added: “President Robert Mugabe, after all, has hunkered down in an extremely defensive mode, replete with the fierce tools of repression he inherited from white Rhodesia (supplemented during the early 1990s by US military cooperation) and his own brand of opposition-bashing, in which radical rhetoric (regular, paranoid accusations of counterrevolution, and even a promise in late 1998 to resurrect “socialism”) features but no longer confuses quite so much.”


He was right. Since the disputed 2000 general election won by Zanu PF and the 2002 presidential poll  won by Mugabe unemployment has soared to over 70%, mass retrenchments and joblessness have increased while an estimated 75% of the population now live below the poverty line. But this has not spurred any mass mobilisation against President Mugabe’s government.


The deterioration of the economy and the degeneration of governance have corresponded inversely with the increase in repression and bigotry by Mugabe’s government. As elections draw closer the machinery of subjugation and coercion is being oiled to deal with any perceived rebellion.


Political commentators have also said any mass action now could be used by Mugabe to obliterate the opposition on the pretext that it is trying to take over power through unconstitutional means.


The MDC will find it difficult to rally support for its push for electoral reform before next year’s general election as long as government uses Posa to stop people from gathering, meeting and organi-sing.


In the absence of critical mass, the opposition will have to devise other means of mobilising its followers but nobody seems able to articulate what these should be.

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