HomeOpinionDangers of Mugabe's electoral reforms

Dangers of Mugabe’s electoral reforms

By Brian Raftopoulos

AS Zimbabweans ponder the forthcoming March 2005 election, many do so with a growing sense of resignation and defeat. This attitude has been bred out of a repeated sense of being denied

the fundamental right to vote in an atmosphere reasonably free of state-induced coercion and in a climate of informed debate.

Recent electoral experiences, particularly the 2000 and 2002 general and presidential elections respectively, provided a good deal of evidence of electoral irregularities, coercion of voters, denial of voting rights, a repressive environment for the media, and a general closing down of the public sphere.

Numerous national and international reports have been compiled detailing such abuses, although they remain the subject of dispute and prolonged legal challenge. The case challenging the legitimacy of the 2002 presidential election has only just entered the courts, running parallel to the treason trials against the major opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. In many ways the concurrent positioning of these two cases is symbolic of the ruling strategy of Zanu PF: On the one hand the purported concern for legality and the rule of law, by submitting cases against the ruling party to a restructured judiciary designed to serve the selective needs of regime intolerance; on the other, the continued legal harassment of leading opposition figures.

In 2000 Zanu PF entered the general election with a real sense of uncertainty, even though it had already inflicted a great deal of harm on the opposition party and its supporters. The sense of alarm emerged from the defeat in the constitutional referendum in February of that year and the growing sense of an emergent alternative political force. By the 2002 presidential election the authoritarian restructuring of the Zimbabwean state and continued flaws in the electoral system, produced a greater sense of confidence of the election result.

Since 2002 the coercive consolidation of the ruling party around the land question, a ferocious attack on media freedom, a continuous undermining of local government structures dominated by the MDC, and an increasingly racialised political language, has created an atmosphere of growing fear and acceptance. Moreover this has been done with the public solidarity of the region and the continent.

Zanu PF now feels it has contained the MDC, both through the severe restrictions on its activities nationally, and its diplomatic isolation in Africa generally and southern Africa particularly. The MDC itself has had to deal with such a state onslaught, while trying to develop its own policy capacity, confront the way it has been perceived in Africa, and deal with problems of internal fissures and organisational management. Moreover, it has had to confront the central problem of peacefully mobilising against an increasingly intolerant state, while being confined to urban spaces. Problems of mobilisation have been exacerbated by a weakened civil society in which major civic forces such as the labour movement and the National Constitutional Assembly have been weakened both by state responses, and the real difficulties of mobilisation in the current environment.

The result has been a labour movement that looks increasingly corporatist in outlook and wary of alliance politics, and a constitutional movement whose message remains pertinent, but whose tactical responses have been quickly dealt with by the state. Other civic forces such as the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition have made some lobbying inroads on the continent, but have still to develop a substantial presence at national level. In sum the ruling party is now faced with much weaker opposition forces, in the face of which it feels contemptuously confident.

In Zanu PF’s terms, having placed major constraints on the operations of the opposition and civic forces in the country, its major challenge is to run a general election in 2005 that will guarantee its victory, and secure the beginnings of a renewed international re-engagement. For despite its many assertions to the contrary, the one goal that continues to elude the Mugabe regime is international legitimacy beyond African borders. Above the deluge of pan-Africanist messages that are daily churned out by Zanu PF’s information machine, the need to “beat” the MDC in a widely accepted election remains a necessity for Zimbabwe’s ruling party.

This is both for the international legitimacy that nation states require, and also because of the economic assistance the government so desperately requires. Recently the UN envoy to southern Africa James Morris estimated that nearly five million people are vulnerable to hunger in the year ahead, while the life expectancy rate in the country has fallen from 67 to 33 years because of the HIV/Aids pandemic. With Zimbabwe’s foreign debt estimated to be US$4 billion in the context of the fastest contracting economy in the world, it is clear that the language of nationalist autarchy is insufficient to deal with the monumental problems that confront the country.

At an economic level the Zimbabwean government has attempted to deal with the problems by the introduction of monetary reforms, including a Homelink programme to induce the Zimbabwean diaspora to send foreign currency into the country, a very selective anti-corruption political campaign, and limited measures to deal with the messy outcome of the land occupations.

All these measures are intended to present an image of internal party reform. In the words of the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono: “Zimbabwe is now a totally new area, totally new economy and we are determined to self-correct ourselves in the community of nations.” Without substantive economic assistance such responses are unlikely to produce the economic conditions required by the ruling elite to consolidate their newly appropriated assets.

One of the major strategic dilemmas for the ruling party remains to establish the conditions that will allow for a substantially free and fair election. Until recently such conditions were nowhere in evidence, with continued violence around by-elections, an electoral system that was fatally flawed, and a system of media control that is the envy of any self-respecting fascist. Instead the state had prepared an Electoral Amendment Bill that in the existing form confirmed the restrictive election regulations promulgated by Mugabe before the 2002 presidential election.

This Bill, adding to the already problematic aspects of the electoral process, proposed to establish additional obstacles for the opposition. Firstly, it gave the Mugabe appointed Electoral Supervisory Commission a monopoly over the control of voter education. This would effectively cut out the role of civics critical of the state from working with citizens on election issues. It is also likely that this provision infringed sections 18, 20 and 21 of the Zimbabwean constitution dealing with the rights of freedom of assembly and expression.

Secondly, the Bill allowed the registrar-general or a constituency registrar to alter a person’s name and address on the voters’ roll without the request or application of the person concerned. Such a change could then be effected at any time, including after the inspection of the voters’ roll. Given the unsatisfactory record of the registrar’s department on electoral issues, the margin for abuse accorded through such a provision would have been very large.

Thirdly, the Bill disqualified the majority of Zimbabweans in the diaspora from participating through a postal vote, notwithstanding the government’s attempt to encourage foreign exchange remittances from such individuals.

On June 26, however, the state stepped back from the proposed Bill and announced its intention to reform certain important aspects of the electoral system. These include the removal of the organisation and running of elections from the registrar-general’s office, the appointment of an independent electoral commission and the restriction of voting to one day.

Additionally, the state is proposing the use of translucent boxes for votes, the counting of votes at polling stations, and the automatic registration of people who turn 18 and obtain their identification documents.

These changes incorporate some of the demands that the opposition and civics have been making for some time, and are therefore a step forward. However, even within these changes, severe constraints remain. Firstly, it is proposed that the president appoint the members of the IEC. Secondly, there has been no mention of any reforms around major repressive legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, controlling public assembly and information flows respectively.

In the absence of such changes, the suggested reforms will have a minimum effect on the capacity of the opposition to carry out an election campaign without serious mobilisation and media restraints.

The introduction of such reforms is clearly an attempt to deal both with certain pressures from the region, and to prepare the ground for an international re-engagement. Additionally, the reforms reflect the intense debates and struggles going on within the ruling party over the ways in which Zanu PF should reproduce itself in the long-run. The fissures over the attempts to rationalise the issues around the land question, and the disquiet over the selectiveness of the anti-corruption campaign, are further instances of this dilemma.

These developments in turn relate to the thorny and seemingly intractable issue of succession within the ruling party. One of the more interesting processes to watch over the next few months will be the extent to which Zanu PF can restrain its strong authoritarian impulses, to carry out the minimal facelift that its major allies in the region would be happy with. It is likely, for example, that President Mbeki would happily settle for some minimal election reforms combined with gestures towards a more plural media environment, as a prelude to getting Zimbabwe off the regional agenda.

Apart from the increasingly vacuous assurances from the South African presidency that talks have been taking place between Zanu PF and the MDC, President Mbeki appears to have stepped back further from the Zimbabwe question since his re-election. If this assertion is correct, this position could well be a result of two factors. Firstly, the assumption that Zanu PF is very much in control of the situation, and conversely that the MDC has effectively been dealt with. In effect the South African position has always preferred a reformed Zanu PF solution to the Zimbabwean problem, as opposed to an opposition it neither trusts nor believes can hold the state together in the event of an election victory.

Secondly, it is unlikely that Mbeki, the designated “point man” for the West on the Zimbabwe issues, is under less pressure than before from the US and the UK. The liberatory pretensions of the neo-conservative imperialism have been severely shattered in the unlawful and still unjustified occupation of Iraq, and the brutality of “shock and awe” exposed in the torture cells of Abu Ghraib. In the light of these developments the moral/political influence of the Bush/Blair alliance is at a very low ebb in the region. This is a factor well understood by Robert Mugabe, who has been astute at understanding the importance of internationalising the Zimbabwean crisis around a message of pan-Africanism and anti-imperialism.

In the light of these developments there is a real danger that some minimal electoral reforms, accompanied by a semblance of economic reform, articulated through a regional solidarity, in the context of a crisis of Western interventionism, could open up new opportunities for the Zimbabwe government. Under such conditions Zimbabweans could well face a sustained period of “normalisation” of authoritarian rule.

* Brian Raftopoulos is associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Zimbabwe.

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