Opposition should not be part of this charade

AS the two main p

arties, Zanu PF and the Movement for Democratic Change, limber up for the parliamentary election, now set for March next year, there seems to be a distinct absence of the sort of public debate that should be taking place around the contest. Like, should the opposition be participating in the first place?

Zanu PF has been oiling its formidable electoral machinery since last year while the MDC is playing catch-up. Morgan Tsvangirai has been speaking at public meetings as if he is on the campaign trail.

This is good for morale. But is it sensible? Should the MDC be fighting an election when the playing field is tipped so heavily against them? The difference between 2005 and 2000 is that Zanu PF is now fully prepared to deal with any challenge. Their near defeat four years ago was the product of years of complacency as well as public disillusionment. That disillusionment has, if anything, got worse as the economy spirals down. But the means of coercion have improved immensely as last weekend’s announcement of draconian new powers of arrest and detention illustrate.

We should not for one minute buy the official explanation that those powers, deriving from the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) (Amendment of Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act) regulations, will be confined to implementing the so-called anti-corruption drive. They will be, as other new laws such as Aippa and Posa have been, applied to propping up the government’s increasingly threadbare authority. And they will in all probability be used at the same time to settle a few scores.

What the new regulations do is vitiate the fundamental precept of a democratic society that a person is regarded as innocent until proved guilty. And they withdraw the protection of the courts from detained persons who the police claim to have a prima facie case against. In so doing they subvert clearly stated constitutional rights, most notably those contained in Sections 13 and 18.

The government press has been suggesting such laws apply elsewhere such as in Botswana and the United States. They most certainly do not, nor do they apply in countries of the region where a Sadc protocol lays down the rights of citizens. They are very simply the sort of laws that held sway under the State of Emergency which Zanu PF found so handy in dealing with its political opponents after 1980.

Completely innocent citizens could find themselves locked up on the basis of a spurious tip-off to the police by a political or business rival. Just as seriously, critics of the regime could find themselves detained in circumstances where only perfunctory legal justification needs to be met.

The amendment to the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act relieves the police of their duty to meet the elementary test of professional policing — to amass evidence before making an arrest. It will be used together with Aippa and Posa to complete the apparatus of the police state Zanu PF is assembling prior to next year’s poll.

Ostensibly the latest measures are designed to assist with investigations into corruption and money laundering. But after 24 years when tackling corruption did not appear to be a government priority, their timing is suspicious. Nor are the public likely to be reassured by the introduction of a government department responsible for the anti-corruption drive. This is not the independent authority that is obviously needed to prevent a partisan and selective approach to exposing the problem.

Zanu PF have evidently decided that the war on corruption will be the central plank in their electoral platform. That will be a popular decision because so many of the country’s ills can be attributed to greed in the private sector while public institutions — at the heart of the national rot — are given less attention.

But in stripping Zimbabweans of their liberties the government is compounding the impression of a regime unwilling to make its case by constitutional means.

Is this the sort of environment in which a free and fair election can be held? This question is linked to others as an election looms. What are the prospects for opposition parties wanting to hold rallies and public meetings? Are voters being allowed access to a variety of views in the public media so they can make an informed choice at the ballot box? Do they have confidence in the office of the Registrar-General and the Electoral Supervisory Commission to ensure independent management of the election?

The MDC should be addressing these issues and explaining why it still feels confident in proceeding with its campaign. Has Zanu PF disbanded its militias or undertaken to renounce violence?

Exactly what has changed since 2000 except a refinement of the methods of co-option and coercion?

Inter-party talks were designed to resolve these issues. But Zanu PF is understandably dragging its heels. Unless and until it agrees to negotiations aimed at levelling the electoral playing field and creating an environment in which free elections can take place the opposition parties should not be lending themselves to such an obvious charade.