By Brian Raftopoulos
THE decision by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to withdraw from any future elections until a comprehensive range of electoral reforms is introduced by the ruling par
ty was increasingly an option that had to be considered.
Throughout the post-colonial period, Zanu PF has displayed open hostility and intolerance towards opposition parties. This hostility has been characterised by electoral procedures that negate the possibility of political alternatives, media practices that negate open political debate, state interventions that minimise the possibility of open political organisation in the public sphere and the ever-present threat and utilisation of violence as a central political strategy.
The period since 2000 has exacerbated these practices and shown the severe limitations of a parliamentary opposition in a political structure that has placed increasing power in an authoritarian presidency. Moreover, the ideological climate in the country has monotonously constructed the opposition as a foreign creation, undeserving of respect and subject to any form of legislative stricture and political violence designated by the state.
In 2000, after the momentous general election of that year, there was a residual optimism that a substantive parliamentary opposition would open up the political debate in the country and provide the option of future political alternatives. This optimism obtained, notwithstanding the fact that Zanu PF had already signalled its intention to undermine the opposition by any means necessary.
Since 2000, the MDC has been subjected to a broad onslaught of state coercion that has undermined any attempts to strengthen the legislature and turn it into something more substantive than the president’s plaything.
Unfortunately any such lofty hopes have been comprehensively dispelled, along with the once national aspiration that legislative power would be secured within the framework of comprehensive constitutional reform.
The excitement and sense of national involvement that drove this objective between 1998-2000 now seems like a distant memory, poisoned by the sour grapes and authoritarian acrimony of a ruling party unaccustomed to dissent.
That process demonstrated the best sense of patriotic involvement that relied for its success on tolerance, broadly based debate and the pre-eminent requirement of consent, rather than the commandist thuggery of state violence, and exclusive definitions of membership of the nation.
It is not only the legislature that has been throttled by excessive executive authority. Local government structures too have had to bear the undemocratic interventions of a ruling party, determined to ensure that citizen participation at this level is once again throttled by despotic interventions.
Urbanites have watched their representatives emasculated and their rights as citizens reduced to that of “totemless” subjects. Local authorities are more than ever run by an inefficient central government, through imposed mayors, and an additional political structure known as an urban governor, which is little more than an extra layer of political patronage.
The recent Southern African Development Community (Sadc) meeting in Mauritius, which set out electoral principles and guidelines for the region, provides a good opportunity for the Zimbabwean opposition to campaign for more equal conditions for electoral contest.
The Sadc guidelines provide for a broad range of conditions on electoral practices and access to media as well to the public sphere generally. Such conditions are for the most part not available in Zimbabwe at present, and the electoral reforms proposed by the ruling party are not nearly sufficient to meet the Sadc standards.
The opposition will have to wait to see how much the proposed Zanu PF reforms will be extended to include broader demands around the media and the freedom to campaign without violence. The ruling party strategy may well be to open up such spaces as late as possible, which will then present the MDC with a dilemma.
For if such conditions are met, even though late in the day, the process could well receive the support of Sadc, as well as create some divisions in the rest of the international community. In the event a late opening of space would do little to undo the huge damage that has already been to the electoral process.
Notwithstanding these problems, the opposition needs to reflect critically on its performance over the last four years. This will include its performance in parliament, the state of its organisational structures, problems of internal accountability, its choice of parliamentary and local government candidates and its relations with its constituencies and civic partners. It will also need to assess its regional and international alliances and the often clumsy manner it has handled its international relations.
Additionally the MDC will need to consider its strategy after a boycott. Most importantly it will need to offer a message of hope to its existing and potential supporters, and provide a programme of action that will look beyond the 2005 elections.
Most importantly it will need to develop a broad range of political, economic, intellectual and cultural processes that will build its popular support in both urban and rural areas. This problem of developing alliances across rural and urban spaces will need to be confronted more seriously, as it is the key to building a more effective opposition. Broad alliance politics is still the order of the day, but it must take into account the complex struggles that are currently unfolding over the ongoing land question.
These are huge challenges to which all who are concerned with long-term democratic changes must turn their attention.
*Brian Raftopoulos is professor of development studies at Zids.