Minor elections test of democratic well being

SMALL elections, with little depending on them except for voters and candidates directly affected, provide a reliable test of a country’s democratic system and commitment to free and fair elections

. When such elections cannot be obtained with little at stake, what reason is there for hope in more critical matters?

Chegutu recently provided an example. General elections for Zimbabwe’s urban councils must by law be held in August every fourth year, 2003 being the first since the failed constitutional reform exercise of 1999 and the formation of the MDC with its known urban support.

While Chegutu’s MP comes from Zanu PF, its election of an MDC mayor in 2001 confirmed the MDC also enjoys support there.

A damning official report on corruption, illegality, mismanagement by councillors and a climate of “perpetual fear” there among council employees showed why the MDC wanted to contest all 11 council seats; and other High Court records show what happened when they tried, with violence allowing the “election” of all Zanu PF’s nominees without a vote — including those officially considered responsible for the past corruption and fear.

On July 21 what police described as a “rowdy” crowd obstructed access to Chegutu’s nomination court, attacking all 11 MDC candidates and their agents with bricks and sticks, as they tried to get in to file their papers, injuring 10 of them and destroying their documents and those of at least one independent candidate. One other man managed to lodge his papers but withdrew later the same day fearing for his life, leaving just 11 nominees chosen by the ruling party, who had all got in there without difficulty or fear, to claim to have been elected “freely and fairly” without a poll.

The MDC advised from the outset that its attackers were clothed in MDC T-shirts, of a kind not used by it since 2000 when many were taken by the ruling party. Oddly, no ruling party T-shirts were seen there.

Police confirmed investigations and arrests (unspecified) had been made. There was no police report of anyone else injured. No-one has appeared yet in the Chegutu criminal court. The ringleader named was not arrested — unusual for someone allegedly an MDC member and implicated in violence.

After newspaper reports about the application to the court for its assistance, further attacks at some homes caused more reports against the same man.

The MDC said the unruly crowd did not comprise its members but that the court needn’t decide who they were as it shouldn’t matter: Electoral law has from earliest times prohibited anyone disturbing election proceedings or obstructing people from being able to sign papers or vote.

The officer in charge said he had been approached earlier and had assured the MDC of their safety, and had 14 police on duty; but MDC members’ admitted injuries included a broken leg, a broken nose, a broken rib, and a fractured skull.

Police said after they dispersed everybody with gunfire, they were asked just after 3 pm at their main station in the surrounds of Town House (where the nomination court was sitting) to provide the MDC candidates with an escort there. They took one agent to its door at about 4pm under police protection — only to be told he was minutes too late.

The MDC’s aspiring candidates, a group of bookkeepers, businessmen, workers and managers, didn’t give up. After medical treatment, they all applied urgently to the High Court for an order to allow them and any other affected candidates to lodge their nominations without interference.

The application was filed a week after nominations and a month before the poll dates, with replies by all parties and arguments filed and heard by August.

Although characterised by such serious known violence and no voting, Zimbabwe’s government described the events in Chegutu as a model of a lawful election, and successfully opposed the court applying the precedents of earlier cases to throw a “lifeline to democracy” to allow voters to make a choice.

The Registrar-General, whose duty is to ensure “free and fair” elections, throughout refused to use his powers to alter the nomination days or consider the nomination papers of those violently and unlawfully excluded.

The Electoral Supervisory Commission said its personnel heard the complaint from the man stripped of his documentation, and of police dispersing people outside the court. It revealed the court adjourned in the afternoon during its official hours of opening but used the nomination of one other man to support a claim that the proceedings were “relaxed and peaceful” and “lawful”.

Its four members, each chosen by President Mugabe, failed to respond to the evidence of violence heard by their personnel that day. Because they saw nothing, they said nothing, and did nothing.

The urgent application was dismissed a month after it was filed, three weeks after closing arguments, and the ruling party’s choice then sworn in for the next four years without a vote. The mayor was not allowed by the “winners” to attend.
As an appeal against Judge Hlatshwayo’s judgment is likely, it would be inappropriate to comment on whether we believe the decision was in accordance with the law. The reality is, when some people decided to violently block others from standing, no remedy was available.

The bottom line is this gave voters in Chegutu no vote. Authorities let an election be decided by hooligans outside a nomination court, and all those who braved the violence to try to get their names on the ballot papers and participate in an election did so in vain.

Few examples could prove more clearly the flaws still remaining in our electoral system.

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