By Simon Tisdall
GROUNDBREAKING elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine, Palestine and Iraq, extolled in President Bush’s “dawn of freedom” inaugural address, have encouraged western hopes that d
emocratic values are gaining universal acceptance.
But this winning streak, if that is what it is, will come to a shuddering halt next month in Zimbabwe.
President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu PF party look poised to steal parliamentary elections on March 31 in the same violently fraudulent way that, say Zimbabwe’s opposition and international observers, they stole past polls in 2000 and 2002.
“All the indications so far are that the elections will be stolen,” Michael Ancram, the shadow foreign secretary, said on Tuesday. “I hope this time we will respond with more than rhetoric.”
Mugabe launched a three-pronged strategy last week in a speech to handpicked party candidates. As in the past, he ridiculed the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, as colonialism’s toadies.
He accused the MDC of taking instructions from Britain and the US. Banners in the Harare conference centre where he spoke declared it was “Time to bury Blair and his puppets”.
Mugabe, 81 this month, was particularly rude about Condoleezza Rice, the African-American new US Secretary of State, calling her a “girl” who should know that “the white man is not a friend”. Rice described his regime last month as one of six international “outposts of tyranny”.
The second prong of Mugabe’s campaign strategy is repression on a scale surpassing previous polls.
New regulations have banned unlicensed meetings of more than 10 people, further restricted independent election monitoring and human rights groups, banned MDC newspaper advertising, tightened press curbs, and given Mugabe control of the electoral commission.
Voting rolls are reportedly out of date and at least three million Zimbabweans who have left the country for political or economic reasons cannot vote. Intimidation and violence by youth militias is continuing unchecked.
Meanwhile, Tsvangirai faces a second, specious treason charge in May.
Especially troubling for Mugabe’s neighbours is his failure to adopt electoral standards agreed last August with his peers in the 13-country Southern African Development Community.
This has embarrassed South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, who has maintained that “quiet diplomacy” by African countries is the best route to reform. The Commonwealth wields even less influence than before, following Mugabe’s decision to quit the organisation in 2003.
Mugabe’s other tactic concerns food. Agricultural output has collapsed in the five years since the seizure of white-owned farms began, although the official reason is drought. According to a US-funded report last month, almost half Zimbabwe’s 12,5 million population now faces imminent food shortages, the biggest emergency in Africa after Ethiopia.
Having claimed last May that Zimbabwe could feed itself and told UN and other donors to take their food aid elsewhere, Harare admitted last week that 1,5 million were in immediate need.
But rather than ask for resumed outside aid, officials said staple maize meal rations and cash would be distributed to needy households. Limits have been imposed on individuals’ purchase and transportation of maize, reinforcing the state monopoly.
The MDC and church critics say food handouts are being used as an electoral weapon, as in previous polls. Ancram said food was a “political lever” and accused the British and regional governments of betraying Zimbabweans, black and white, through inaction.
“Quiet diplomacy has become a synonym for doing nothing. Our government is somehow embarrassed by Zimbabwe. But there’s nothing colonialist about fighting oppression.
“When Gordon Brown went to Africa, his map had a big hole which is Zimbabwe,” Ancram said. “Condoleezza Rice’s comments about outposts of tyranny may mean the US is going to internationalise it.
“But I want Britain to take the lead. It would be a disgrace to leave it to the US. The government has effectively walked by on the other side.” — The Guardian.