THE opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)’s decision last week to contest the March general election after initial threats of a boycott elicited mixed reactio
ns from political analysts and civil society leaders.
Whilst some analysts said the controversial decision was pragmatic under the prevailing circumstances, others said it showed the MDC was in a sticky situation.
The MDC suspended participation in polls in August last year pending the implementation of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) principles on democratic elections.
The Sadc elections protocol urges member states to “establish impartial, all-inclusive, competent and accountable national electoral bodies staffed by qualified personnel, as well as competent legal entities including effective constitutional courts to arbitrate in the event of disputes arising from the conduct of elections”.
The regulations also encourage Sadc countries to safeguard freedoms of association, assembly, expression and campaigning, as well as access to the media by all political parties.
Member states are also required to take “all necessary measures and precautions to prevent the perpetration of fraud, rigging, or any other illegal practices throughout the whole electoral process”.
The Sadc principles put Zimbabwe in a tight spot because of its skewed political landscape and flawed electoral process ahead of the forthcoming election set for March 31.
Zimbabwe’s 2000 parliamentary and 2002 presidential elections were hotly-disputed amid allegations of violence, vote-rigging, and fraud. The election results led to still ongoing legal battles.
The controversy over the electoral outcome also led to the country’s isolation from the international community. This further worsened the current economic crisis, underlined by a political impasse and a sea of other troubles besetting the nation.
In a bid to comply with the Sadc protocol, the ruling Zanu PF recently railroaded two pieces of legislation through parliament to govern the electoral process.
The legislation resulted in the establishment of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which will run all elections, and introduced new voting procedures. Voting will now be done in one day instead of two; translucent ballot boxes will be used and counting of votes will be done at polling stations and not the national command centre, which critics say is the rigging headquarters.
Despite the introduction of the ZEC, a statutory and not constitutional body, the old electoral agencies still remain and will effectively run the poll.
The discredited Registrar-General of Elections’ Office, Elections Directorate, Delimitation Commission and Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) will still be involved.
Analysts say the ZEC, whose claim to being autonomous is questionable, is susceptible to political pressure and manipulation because Zanu PF can always amend the law as and when it wants to ensure the body fulfils its interests.
Initially, the ZEC was supposed to be a constitutional body to replace the ESC but Zanu PF failed to effect the change when the MDC proved uncooperative.
This meant that Zanu PF proceeded unilaterally to introduce the ZEC and define its mandate without adequate consultation. The body becomes a Zanu PF creation instead of being a parliamentary initiative whose legitimacy is not in doubt.
Although the MDC was involved in the appointment of members of the ZEC, most of them are widely seen as Zanu PF cronies. In particular it has voiced protests about its chairman, Justice George Chiweshe.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai said the ZEC was facing a litmus test of impartiality.
“The commission has an intricate task to separate itself from past practices and show that a fresh electoral management system is possible,” he said this week.
“That can only happen if the commission discharges its duties without fear or favour. The commission needs to check on the impact of Zanu PF’s bureaucratic dominance on the management and administration of the election.”
While the MDC gives the commission, which operates within the broad hostile political environment, the benefit of the doubt, it also runs the risk of getting trapped in the convoluted elections tangle.
Although the opposition is on record as saying the reforms are cosmetic and piecemeal, it still wants to participate in a flawed process — for the third time!
But for practical purposes nothing has changed. The MDC admits in its Sadc principles compliance checklist dossier that there is little, if any, real observance of the regional bloc’s election protocol.
So why then did the MDC decided to enter the election race? The party said the problem was that it was in a Catch-22 situation: damned if it did and equally damned if it didn’t.
Analysts differed on the decision taken. Some said boycotting the election would have simply rendered the party completely irrelevant and put it under threat of disintegration.
Others said by entering the poll the MDC showed it had learnt and forgotten nothing from the recent history of contesting rigged elections, which only serve to lend a veneer of legitimacy to stolen victories. Critics say both arguments sound realistic and sustainable, but one should surely be more realistic than the other.
University of Zimbabwe political analyst Professor Heneri Dzinotyiwei said: “It was the only option they (MDC) had. But I think Zanu PF will have an edge in the election because of the skewed playing field.”
National Constitutional Assembly chairman and commentator, Lovemore Madhuku, said the MDC decision was as “shocking” as it was unhelpful. He said the MDC had fatally shot itself in the foot through the unviable resolution.
“It was a very unfortunate decision. I’m shocked that the MDC would take such an irresponsible move,” Madhuku said.
“Contesting the election under protest will not help anything except to legitimise a flawed electoral process. The MDC will lose the election because of the current hostile political conditions.”
Madhuku said the decision was ridiculous and a mockery of the MDC’s initial position.
“What has changed now in terms of the situation on the ground? Nothing. The MDC decision is a just mockery of their initial principled position,” he said.
“Actually, the MDC seems to be now chickening out of the real struggle for fundamental democratic reforms in Zimbabwe.”
Asked what a boycott would achieve, Madhuku said the search for a solution to the current crisis should be broad and holistic.
“We have always said that the MDC can’t win any election under these conditions,” he said.
“If we were in the MDC position we would simply tell (President Robert) Mugabe that we will not contest the election until you create a conducive environment. We will not legitimise an election which is flawed and will possibly be rigged.”
Madhuku’s solution: “Zimbabwe needs a fundamental constitutional review first and foremost. That will deal with electoral framework issues and other broad contested issues. It will also address critical issues of governance, transparency and accountability.”
Madhuku said undemocratic arrangements such as Zanu PF’s in-built and guaranteed 30 seats would also be scrapped in levelling the playing field.
“At the moment how does the MDC win an election when Zanu PF starts off with 30 seats already in the bag? They will obviously lose and then what? It’s just a nonstarter!”