DEBATE is raging at home and abroad on whether or not Zimbabwe’s forthcoming general election will be free and fair. South African President Thabo Mbeki fuelled the debate last week after he said he had no reason to think anyone would prevent
a free and fair poll. Mbeki’s deputy Jacob Zuma also agreed, saying he did not understand what the noise was all about over the Zimbabwe election because when Iraq held its poll in January there was a lot of violence, but no such debate.
Political analysts say Mbeki’s statements were calculated to whitewash the result of the election, likely to be won by the ruling Zanu PF, courtesy of a skewed playing field.
University of Zimbabwe (UZ) law lecturer and civic activist Lovemore Madhuku said Mbeki’s statements smacked of an intention to airbrush a tainted result.
“It’s clear Mbeki wants to endorse the election result which he knows will be in favour of Zanu PF. He is trying to secure legitimacy for (President Robert) Mugabe’s rule,” he said. “That is why he was anxious to bring the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) back to the electoral process after it threatened to boycott the election. Now that the MDC will contest he wants to use that to say the election was legitimate.” After sounding concerned about Zimbabwe’s crisis in a recent interview with the Financial Times, Mbeki stirred controversy last week after he suggested Zimbabwe’s March 31 poll would be free and fair.
“I have no reason to think that anybody in Zimbabwe will militate in a way so that the elections will not be free and fair,” Mbeki said.
While complaints mounted that Zimbabwe was not complying with Southern African Development Community (Sadc) electoral guidelines, Mbeki said it was. “I don’t know what has happened in Zimbabwe that is in violation of the Sadc protocol, because as I know things like the independent electoral commission, things like access to the public media, things like the absence of violence and intimidation, those matters have been addressed,” he said.
Mbeki’s statement followed similar remarks by South African Foreign Affairs minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma who recently said Zimbabwe was doing enough to ensure a free and fair election.
Dlamini-Zuma, who in 2003 vowed Pretoria would never criticise Harare as long as the ruling ANC was in power, met United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week on Friday in Washington — the first meeting by the two black women foreign ministers — for talks on bilateral issues. Zimbabwe featured prominently in their talks.
The meeting came hard on the heels of US President George Bush’s renewal of sanctions against Mugabe and his associates. In a move that showed the US was increasingly getting agitated about Mugabe’s regime, Bush said Zimbabwe had become an “unusual and extraordinary threat” to the world’s only superpower.
Rice in January described Zimbabwe as an “outpost of tyranny” together with North Korea, Iran, Belarus, Burma and Cuba.
The US and its allies and South Africa and its friends mostly in the region seem positioned worlds apart on the Zimbabwe issue.
Commenting on Mbeki’s remarks, UZ associate professor Brian Raftopoulos said: “I think Mbeki jumped the gun and shot himself in the foot. He has done his reputation enormous damage because the situation in Zimbabwe has not changed at all.”
MDC spokesman Paul Themba Nyathi said last week on Friday Mbeki’s utterances were “prejudicial to a free and fair election and the interests of the people of Zimbabwe”. He said Mbeki was misinformed. “We continue to have our meetings and rallies disrupted by Zanu PF supporters and a partisan police force, intimidation, selective application of the law, a chaotic voters’ roll and limited media coverage,” he said. “We still have restrictive legislation, biased electoral authorities and abuse of other parties and their supporters on state television. All these issues do not augur well for a free and fair election. Therefore the statement by President Mbeki was very unfortunate.”
Arnold Tsunga, the director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, was quoted as saying Mbeki’s comments “disregard the suffering of ordinary Zimbabweans in the face of a dictatorship”. Analysts say Zimbabwe’s electoral reforms which officials claim comply with the Sadc guidelines are woefully inadequate to be consequential to the electoral outcome.
The principles say Sadc member states should allow full participation of the citizens in the political process, freedom of association, political tolerance, regular elections, equal access by political parties to the state media, equal opportunity to exercise the right to vote and be voted for, and voter education.
They also urge impartiality of electoral institutions and independence of the judiciary, as well as the need to accept the election results.
Sadc member states are also required to establish “impartial, all-inclusive, competent, and accountable national electoral bodies staffed by qualified personnel”.
Countries also have to respect freedoms of movement, assembly and expression and “take all necessary measures and precautions to prevent the perpetration of fraud, rigging, or any other illegal practices throughout the whole electoral process”. Mbeki says Zimbabwe has set up an independent electoral commission, opened up the public media and dealt with violence and intimidation. While this is true, it is also equally true to say the electoral commission is staffed by pro-government sympathisers. Its chairman was appointed by Mugabe, who is battling for political survival, and has close ties with Zanu PF.
The state media has only been opened up in a limited way — certainly they are not giving equal access to different parties. Media controls and the closure of newspapers remain, while voters’ education is a state monopoly. Election observers are restricted.
While violence has declined, intimidation remains. Harassment is still undeniably widespread. So far at least 10 opposition candidates have been arrested during campaigns or for putting up posters. In brief, the measures Mbeki refers to don’t address fundamental issues.
The new electoral commission, vulnerable to the whims and caprices of the party in power, is also almost entirely irrelevant because it came after all key preparations for elections had been done.
The poll will be run by the old and partisan bodies such the Electoral Supervisory Commission, whose chief elections officer is a retired army brigadier. The body also has several former army officers.
The old Register-General’s office, which complied the deeply flawed voters’ roll with tens of thousands of dead and ghost voters, is still in charge, together with other discredited bodies like the Delimitation Commission and Election Directorate. Although there is now an electoral court, its judges were appointed by a chief justice who is seen by many as a government ally.
The other so-called reforms include reducing the number of voting days to one; introduction of translucent ballot boxes and counting of votes at polling stations.
While these are important, they do not address the root cause of the problem — which is the chaotic voters’ register and a hostile political climate. In the end, it is clear nothing has changed. The election will as a result almost certainly be a gigantic sham -— and this will definitely not take the country anywhere. It will mostly be back to square one after that!