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MDC wrong on boycott timing

THE decision last week by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to boycott elections until government adheres to the electoral standards laid down by Southern African Development Community (Sadc) heads in Mauritius last month has generated debate both inside the party and wi

thin civil society.

The MDC was obviously justified, many observers say, in claiming that any future election would place them at an unfair disadvantage given the ruling party’s refusal to do anything more than submit to pressure from Sadc for technical reforms in the conduct of polls. While those reforms, providing for independent electoral institutions, non-discriminatory voters’ registration and accessible voters’ rolls, will do much to improve the electoral process in Zimbabwe, they don’t address the wider context.

Mauritian premier Paul Berenger spelt out that wider context when he said “really free and fair elections mean not only an independent electoral commission but also include freedom of assembly and absence of physical harassment by the police or any other entity, freedom of the press and access to national radio and television, and external and credible observation of the whole electoral process”.

The MDC argues that none of those broader, but essential, requirements are in place. More to the point, Zanu PF appears to have no intention of putting them there.

Southern Africa Publishing House chief Ibbo Mandaza said the boycott was a smart tactic.

“It’s a smart election campaign tactic,” Mandaza said. “I think they are trying to put Zanu PF on the spot. It’s not a pullout. They have put the election on an upbeat. Zanu PF needs to take note.”

Human Rights Trust for Southern Africa deputy director Noel Kututwa however said the decision was premature.

“As a political party they did not adequately consult their own membership,” Kututwa said. “The decision was supposed to be taken to congress. By pulling out of elections what message are they communicating? Democracy entails standing in elections. Yes the issues they raise about the electoral playing field not being level are valid but now there was a Sadc protocol and they were supposed to hold Zanu PF accountable.”

The MDC points out that even before the ink was dry on the Grande Baie protocol ministers were planning new ways of closing democratic space. The draft Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) Bill plans to further close democratic space by refusing registration to foreign-funded civics.

Both Sadc and the African Union share a commitment to popular participation in the political process. That in turn enables citizens to make an informed choice at the ballot box. But voters cannot make an informed choice if they are denied access to competing views or don’t know what their rights are.

NGOs say they perform a vital public service in telling voters what rights they have under the law. Now they will be excluded from that role leaving the electoral field open to Zanu-PF’s coercion.

There is not much likelihood of equal access to the media either. Never has the so-called public media been more an instrument of the ruling party than now. As Welshman Ncube pointed out in this paper last week, it has been “wholly appropriated not just by a political party but by an individual within that party”. Far from tolerating dissent, it pours forth a daily lava of lies, hate-speech and deceit that is the very antithesis of what the Sadc accord is designed to establish.

Berenger referred to the need for freedom of assembly and for voters to be free from police harassment. Posa makes that a pipe dream.

It is therefore understandable that the MDC should wish to draw a line in the sand. It must also be said that this was not an arbitrary decision but one that emanated from the party’s district assemblies which concluded that while they could take a bashing from Zanu PF’s armed thugs, electoral manipulation — in other words being cheated — was intolerable.

Refusing to provide a veneer of legitimacy to the ruling party’s electoral chicanery was the most logical decision. In response to claims that the pull-out was mistimed, political analyst Professor Elfas Mukonoweshuro said the timing was perfect.

“We have a situation where election management has been mired in irregularities,” Mukonoweshuro said. “It does not make any sense to participate in an election whose outcome is always predetermined. We have the Sadc protocol as an indication of sincerity and good faith, but government did not assure the nation that the upcoming by-election would be held in the spirit of the new regional dispensation.”

Whatever can be said about the reluctance of Sadc leaders to make a stand against misrule in Zimbabwe over the years, the fact is they have now finally succumbed to patient prodding from Thabo Mbeki and set down benchmarks on electoral reform that are unambiguous.

We can comfortably abandon the fiction that these were not directed at any one state. These were all about Zimbabwe and everybody present understood that. President Mugabe’s pretence on his return from Mauritius that he had always favoured electoral reform told us all we needed to know.

What was required, civic players insist, was for the MDC to test the water in the wake of the Mauritius accord. They could have exposed Zanu PF’s insincerity by using debate on the NGO Bill to reveal how far it departs from the Sadc principles. And then explained to the country and the region the implications of stunted electoral education ahead of a general election.

The MDC could have applied for access to ZBC and monitored professional standards in the broadcaster’s coverage of the early stages of the election campaign. It should have above all waited to see who Mugabe appointed to head the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

This was an ideal opportunity to test the government’s commitment to the electoral principles as set out by the heads of state with each new travesty documented. As it is, Sadc heads will feel their efforts were ill-rewarded. But worse still, they now have the perfect excuse to nod through the March outcome however un-free and fair it turns out.

The MDC has let them off the hook just as they were showing a hint of firmness. And it is very doubtful that Zanu PF will feel sufficiently impressed by the MDC’s boycott to introduce anything but the most superficial reforms. If the MDC decides to re-engage it will be on Zanu PF’s terms. The ruling party has made it quite clear it favours a one-party race as in the 1980s with Zanu Ndonga lending a figleaf of credibility.

Despite occupying the moral high ground, the MDC has in tactical terms lost an opportunity to expose the face of the beast of misrule. It is not clear when they will get another chance as important as this one. — Staff Writers.

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