The ball is now in Sadc’s court

By David Coltart

ON July 20, President Mugabe, in his speech marking the opening of parliament, announced that a number of electoral reforms would be introduced that would level the electoral playing field.

Mugabe and Zanu PF disingenuously claimed that these reforms (including the establishment of a new Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, the reduction of polling days from two to one and the counting of votes at polling stations) would address the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)’s demands.

As we said at the time, these proposed reforms only partly address our minimum standards pertaining to improving the transparency and fairness of procedures governing the polling day. On the whole, they are woefully inadequate and fail to even touch on the crucial issue of opening up the political space and ending political violence.

What the ruling party’s proposals clearly demonstrate is that they view an election as an event as opposed to a process.

It is this politically expedient definition of what constitutes an election that received an unequivocal “yellow card” at the Sadc summit in Mauritius. The comprehensive set of guidelines and principles that were agreed upon in Mauritius captured the essential elements of our blueprint, “Restore”, in particular the recognition that a free and fair election is not possible when the political space has all but been closed down. This was a symbolic victory for the MDC.

When Mugabe signed the protocol he was technically committing himself to implementing the MDC’s minimum standards. In theory at least, our “yellow card” in the form of Restore produced a very positive result indeed. The reality, however, is different. In the immediate aftermath of his return from Mauritius, Mugabe and his regime quashed any hopes that they would act in the spirit and letter of the agreement by gazetting a draft NGO Bill containing provisions which continue the government’s determination to crush all organised centres of opinion opposed to the regime.

This for the MDC was the final straw. In the absence of any evidence that the government intends to comply in full with the Sadc elections charter, the MDC decided to draw a line in the sand and say enough is enough. With less than seven months until the election there is insufficient time to wave yellow cards any longer.

The timing of our decision was also influenced by the fact that nomination day for a by-election was due on September 3 and we had to make a decision prior to that day. Had we not made a decision before that day the region could have assumed that we believed that the Mauritius principles were in the process of being implemented in Zimbabwe.

The timing also has to be seen in the context of what has been stated in the region about the issue of negotiations between Zanu PF and MDC. For over a year we have been told that we are engaged in informal negotiations with Zanu PF when that is not true. A real fear we had was that Zanu PF’s compliance, or rather non-compliance, with the Mau-ritius principles, would be fudged as would our “acceptance” that Zimbabwe’s electoral system now complied with the Mauritius principles.

We had to make it clear, emphatically, urgently and unequivocally, that our electoral system does not, and will not, even in the event of Mugabe’s proposed changes being implemented, comply with the Mauritius principles.

It has been suggested in this newspaper and elsewhere that we should have used the next few months to prove that Zimbabwe’s electoral environment does not comply with the Mauritius principles. That is precisely what the Mugabe regime wants us to do. It would, no doubt, be happy to implement meaningful reforms a month prior to the election, which would not result in a free and fair election. Zimbabweans have been deeply traumatised during the last five years and need a peaceful period of at least six months prior to the election to feel confident to exercise their vote meaningfully.

For all the government’s claims that the MDC is dead and that they can run an election without us, Zanu PF can never claim legitimacy unless the MDC participates. Whilst the MDC could have been ignored in 2000, it is now recognised regionally and internationally as a credible political party and to that extent its participation in the 2005 election is critical to both Zanu PF and Sadc if Zimbabwe’s crisis is to be resolved.

To that extent, it was critically important that we indicated to Sadc as soon as possible that we were not prepared to participate in this charade any longer and that they should bring the Mugabe regime to book as quickly as possible to resolve the crisis. The onus is now on Sadc to ensure that the Mugabe regime fully complies with its obligations under Sadc elections’ protocol. A failure to do so would put Sadc’s credibility on the line.

It is suggested that what is required is for the MDC to test the water. That precisely is what we will be doing. We will be testing the regime’s sincerity in the course of the next few months in parliament, in the courts and in the media. At every turn we intend explaining to the Zimbabwean electorate and Sadc why it is that the NGO Bill, Zanu PF’s proposed reforms, and existing draconian legislation that severely curtails our fundamental rights, are wholly incompatible with the Mauritius principles.

Finally, it is also suggested that we are somehow disengaging from the political discourse. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are suspending our involvement in the electoral process pending Zimbabwe’s compliance with the Mauritius principles.That is very different to suspending our involvement in the political process. We are actively identifying candidates for the 2005 parliamentary election. We will be vigorously participating in parliament and organising our structures in anticipation of the Mugabe regime being forced to comply fully with these wonderful new Sadc standards.

*David Coltart is MDC MP for Bulawayo South and its shadow Justice minister.