By Brian Raftopoulos
THE news of opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s acquittal on the charge of treason two weeks ago has been hailed as a step for
ward in the quagmire that is Zimbabwean politics.
It was certainly welcome relief in what is otherwise a political terrain of sustained demoralisation. The case itself was based on suspect evidence, and a rebarbative state witness who became an embarrassment even to the state itself.
Information minister Jonathan Moyo proclaimed that the judgement “confounds, exposes and shames those merchants of lies and falsehoods…always given to maligning and denigrating Zimbabwe as undemocratic and without an independent judiciary”.
It would be a mistake, however, to regard this judgement as a reversal of the politics of repression that characterises Zimbabwe.
Firstly, the judgement does not detract from the immense damage that has been inflicted on the judiciary by the executive since 2000. The combination of highly politicised judicial appointments at the highest levels, executive disregard of court rulings and the continuous use of the judiciary and police to undermine the opposition and the civic movement have played a decisive role in shaping the current political terrain.
Secondly, the state has shown little additional indication that it is willing to open up political space in the country. The major pillars of repressive legislation, namely the severe controls on information dissemination and freedom of association, remain in place. Recently both the ministers of Information and Legal Affairs have reiterated the government’s refusal to allow the opposition access to the public media on the basis that the MDC is not a loyal opposition.
This characterisation of the MDC is consistent with the declaration that the 2005 general election will be an “anti-Blair” election. The implications of such a discursive assault are that the MDC is not a national entity and therefore not entitled to speak on national issues. The ruling party has set the parameters of national legitimacy and in so doing has unilaterally delineated the boundaries of what is acceptable in the political arena.
A further message of such state censure is that those parties that fall outside such a selective definition of the “national” must accept to be dealt with by any means necessary. This language of selective citizenship has marked the authoritarian nationalism of the ruling party and there are indications of its infectiousness in other countries in the region.
In the light of such prevailing conditions it is necessary to read the positive judgement in the case of Tsvangirai extremely cautiously.
It is now clear that the Mugabe regime needs a “legitimate” outcome from the 2005 election, and to that purpose has instituted some minimal election reforms that it argues are in accordance with the Mauritius guidelines on minimal standards. An international acceptance of the 2005 election would serve as a launching pad for the ruling party’s return to the international community.
Thus far President Robert Mugabe has retained the support of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union and there is little to assume that such support will not remain in place until next year.
Certainly there is a general position in the region that the 2005 election could serve as the means to resolve the Zimbabwean crisis, even if such a resolution takes place at the level of form rather than substantive content. South African President Thabo Mbeki appears to favour such a denouement for his policy of quiet diplomacy.
Thus Sadc will certainly be pushing the MDC to take part in next year’s election, and there are indications that sections of the European Union favour such a course as well, if only to get Zimbabwe off the international agenda.
The purported election reforms, combined with the favourable court judgement of the opposition leader, will thus be used as evidence of goodwill from the ruling party, and a strong push for the opposition to enter the 2005 electoral race.
In the current political environment, in which so much damage has been done to the political process, a decision by the opposition to oblige such pressures will more than likely lead to a major defeat of the MDC. In the event of such an outcome the Sadc minimum standards will have been used to ratify an authoritarian regime in the name of the interests of Zimbabwe and the region, and Mbeki will have walked the tightrope of maintaining African legitimacy while remaining the “pointman” of the West. The major victim of such a process will be the struggles for democratisation not only in Zimbabwe but in the region.
*Brian Raftopoulos is associate professor of development studies, IDS, University of Zimbabwe.