MORGAN Tsvangirai’s faction of the MDC, as widely expected, won (others prefer retained) the Budiriro seat in the weekend election. As a replacement seat, it means the party has not gained anything in terms of parliamentary representation. Which is to sa

y the Budiriro by-election was no more than a distraction from the real democracy agenda that those with a bigger vision for Zimbabwe are engaged in. The real task still lies ahead.

The danger with by-elections, apart from wasting resources, is that they draw people’s attention away from the national liberation agenda and focus them on petty personality issues. More importantly, they induce a spirit of apathy because by their very nature, by-elections don’t bring about a change of leadership or direction for the country.

Ultimately, they contribute to voter fatigue in a nation where people have so many shortages to worry about as a result of man-made crises.

In the leadership, the danger is one of inducing a sense of complacency, especially as the parties appear to have maintained their relative strength in the constituency. Zanu PF maintained its electoral average of close to 4 000 votes since the watershed June 2000 parliamentary election whose outcome is still the subject of a court challenge, although the exercise is no more than academic now.

The MDC on the other hand lost a significant chunk of its voters, from over 17 000 in the March 2005 parliamentary election when it was still a united opposition to last week’s 7 949. This was against estimated crowds of close to 15 000 at rallies. In the event, only about 12 400 people cast valid votes against 66 spoilt. Overall, the vote represents a 26% turnout of the 47 994 registered voters in Budiriro. This should sound a wake-up call for those involved.

At the same time, the weekend figures don’t necessarily reflect a rejection of the MDC at grassroots level. The reason could lie elsewhere.

History shows that Zimbabweans are loath to participate in by-elections for the simple reason that they don’t bring about a change in government, which is what a majority of our people are crying for. This in turn makes people reluctant to spend long hours queuing to vote. There are many more immediate bread-and-butter issues to attend to.

We also cannot ignore the impact of Operation Murambatsvina launched in May last year. Thousands of people were displaced in all cities. This necessarily puts into question the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s figure of more than 47 990 registered voters in the constituency. Even the 9 000 ghost voters alleged by the MDC do not push the figure past a quarter of the registered voters.

This to us suggests four major factors. There is need for massive voter education involving government, the contesting parties and civil society organisations. This will allow all the contestants to stake their claims to voters so that they make informed decisions. It is not enough for government to allow the opposition only a few advertising slots on TV just before the poll merely to appease the international community and to appear to be complying with the Sadc guidelines on the holding of democratic elections. The propaganda about the MDC being a “foreign” party has lost its lustre.

The second issue is that too many by-elections are not only wasteful but tend to kill the interest of voters. This is especially the case where the people’s standards of living keep falling and the political situation is in flux. The fight for democracy can be sustained only when each and every voter feels that his ballot counts and can bring about change.

The third factor, and this applies specifically to opposition leaders, is to guard against promising voters alternatives to power other the election that they cannot fulfill. This is not only dangerous brinksmanship. It is to apply for martyrdom at the public gallery without really meaning to relieve the suffering of the people. A series of half-hearted attempts followed by spectacular failures and the beating of demonstrators will defeat the ultimate purpose. People eventually learn to stay away from those who get them beaten up for nothing.

Finally, again relating to the opposition, we cannot emphasise enough the issue of decisiveness and resolve about participating in elections. People need a clear signal. Expecting voters to make up their minds overnight when the party leadership takes over a year to decide is to take voters too much for granted — which was evident in last year’s low voter turnout. Petty acrimonies in the leadership should be resolved at that level and speedily too. Our warning to the MDC would therefore be that if there are any people celebrating the Budiriro victory, they must still bear in mind that the struggle for democracy still lies ahead. Zimbabwe’s desperate situation calls for visionary leadership, not diversionary skirmishes in Budiriro where they are preaching to the converted. A real sea-change in the MDC’s electoral fortunes can come only from the rural vote.

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