It’s more than principles and guidelines

TRONG>THE Sadc summit which ended in Mauritius this week set a challenging threshold for President Robert Mugabe to elevate Zimbabwe’s electoral standards to.

Sadc heads this week trod with caution in tackling Mugabe but in the end made their point by coming up with an electoral charter that exposes the paucity of transparency in the country’s current electoral process. This was very much the “high bar” that the government will have difficulty clearing.

The charter commits member-states to levelling the playing field by affording all parties equal access to the media and unfettered campaigning. It proposes the setting up of independent and impartial bodies to run elections.

Sadc leaders like Thabo Mbeki have been reluctant to tackle Mugabe head-on, especially on issues relating to repression and the rule of law. In Mauritius, Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa employed the carrot and stick tactic. He attacked the West and spoke strongly of the need for regional countries to get back land from former colonisers, which is exactly what Mugabe wanted to hear. But in his address to the summit on Monday, Mkapa managed to smuggle in a reminder to his colleagues that the process of land reform should be done in a “civilised” way. 

Despite pronouncements of solidarity and praise for Mugabe’s valour in wresting back land, no country in the region shows any enthusiasm for taking the disorganised, lawless and often corrupt route carved out by Zimbabwe’s rulers.

“In a much more civilised way, we want to create fair and just mechanisms — not to dispossess anyone, but to redistribute land, and to help new land owners become productive in the quickest possible way on lands over which they have secure property rights,” said Mkapa.

Zimbabwe’s delegation to Mauritius had tried to do its homework by heavily publicising Mugabe’s newfound credentials as a doyen of progressive electoral reforms. Mugabe preached the need for peace during elections ahead of the summit. He never spoke of equal access to the media or unfettered opportunities for the opposition to campaign.

New Sadc head Mauritian Prime Minister Paul Berenger did not pull his punches when he defined what he believes constitutes a free and fair election.

“Really free and fair elections mean not only an independent electoral commission, but also include freedom of assembly and absence of physical harassment by the police or any other entity, freedom of the press and access to national radio and television, and external and credible observation of the whole electoral process,” he told the gathered heads.

Mugabe has heard about the need for reform from his peers. He was in Mauritius when the charter was tabled and debated which should ultimately make him want to own the process and product. But will he deliver to ensure that Zimbabwe’s poll conduct chimes with agreed Sadc standards? This will be the key test over the next seven months.

He has to ensure that the Department of Information and Publicity in his office refocuses the public broadcaster Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings so that the opposition MDC gets equitable coverage on radio and television. That will entail a return to professional standards in news coverage. The public print media will also need to be instructed to cover the opposition’s activities without bias.

The government will need to instruct police not to deny political parties, labour organisations and civil society the right to hold meetings. Youth militia and party hoodlums employed to disrupt opposition rallies will have to be reined in.

Mugabe needs to instruct senior government officials including ministers to leave the judiciary alone instead of making contemptuous attacks on judges who refuse to toe the line.

Perhaps his adherence to the precepts of reform agreed in Grande Baie can be readily judged by the persons to be appointed to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. The return of Tobaiwa Mudede — regarded by many as an agent for election rigging — will not inspire confidence nor will the appointment of soldiers or policemen.

Mugabe was tinkering with the electoral law right up to the eve of the presidential election in 2002. He has to desist from that unsavoury practice.

To scale the heights of optimism Mugabe’s reform package should include amendments to the Public Order and Security Act which Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa has said was useful in dealing with the opposition. There will also need to be a relaxation of the campaign against the private media which has been hounded by Information minister Jonathan Moyo over the past two years as part of a wider campaign to close down democratic space. The airwaves will have to be opened to allow more players into broadcasting in line with a Supreme Court ruling. The NGO Bill cannot be allowed to pass through parliament in its current state.

To achieve this Mugabe will need to discard the myth that an opposition victory means a return to colonialism. Indeed, he will need to discard what he perceives to be the instruments of his political survival.

None of this is very likely. While the government will now address the technical shortcomings of electoral administration, it is unprepared to address the context. That remains one of violence, hate-speech, coercion and manipulation. Zimbabwe’s democratic deficit remains the worst in a far-from-perfect region.

But what we have now is a set of rules to measure the government’s commitment and performance. That at least is a start.

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