Comment – 7 Mar

IT must be evident now to even the most sanguine of observers that Zimbabwe will not be getting the free and fair election it had hoped for only two months ago.

In early January it looked as if President Thabo Mbeki’s diplomacy had managed to secure agreement between the two main parties on electoral, security and media laws that would pave the way for what appeared to be a sea change in national politics.

Mbeki’s lieutenants, in a remarkable feat of shuttle diplomacy, had knocked heads together at meetings in Harare and Pretoria which resulted in important amendments to the Electoral Law, the Public Order and Security Act and the notorious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. These would address glaring democratic deficiencies in the way elections were conducted, the role of the police, and the right of journalists to practise their profession without gratuitous interference by agencies of the state.

All that remained was the issue of the constitution and certain modalities covering the elections themselves, such as the date. Even here the two sides, Zanu PF and the MDC, had agreed on the outline of a new constitution. Where they disagreed was over when it should be introduced.

The diplomacy itself was driven by Sadc’s need for Zimbabwe to be seen as conforming to the 2004 Mauritius guidelines on electoral conduct. That is why a purportedly independent supervisory body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, was set up the following year. The matter was given increased urgency by the outbreak of violence, most of it instigated by the state, in March last year. Images of the savage beatings of opposition figures beamed around the world were said to have shocked Mbeki and other Sadc leaders. Hence the regional intervention.

But despite the gains on paper, Zimbabwe’s electoral landscape remains profoundly flawed. Police chiefs have sanctioned demonstrations by the ruling party in the city centre while refusing permission for the opposition to do the same. The public media has provided no space to the opposition and continues to act as a platform for ruling-party apologists. Meanwhile, senior politicians provide a shocking example of public behaviour to their followers by denouncing the opposition in crude and abusive terms. Nowhere is there enlightened leadership.

At the core of the electoral process is an electoral commission that is clearly in deep difficulty. It put out a pamphlet recently on electoral procedures which contained information so inaccurate that it had to apologise for the “factual errors” and withdraw the material. It is manifestly unable to conduct voter education itself but prevents others, more qualified, from doing so. Most of its staff have come from government backgrounds and therefore, like the police, have little experience in interacting with the press or civil society.

Contributing to the uneven political playing field is the abuse of public resources by the incumbent regime. Is Zanu PF paying for the helicopters President Mugabe is using in his election campaign? Reports also suggest the police have refused VIP protection to Simba Makoni and his family.

This is cavalier in the extreme. In the United States and Britain leaders of the contending parties are immediately provided with security as soon as the election campaigns are underway. The same goes in South Africa.

Makoni didn’t “qualify” as a VIP, he was told. Last week we had a service chief and the senior civil servant in the president’s office making partisan comments that reflect the immaturity of the country’s institutions.

A lot will have to change if the impression of official delinquency and abuse of resources is not to persist. But instead of getting better the situation on the ground is getting worse.

The Zanu PF newspaper, The Voice, told its readers this week that MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa had “promised Zimbabweans that they would be killed if they vote for President Mugabe”. This was used to portray the MDC as the party of violence.

Of course Chamisa had said no such thing. He had warned recently that the Kenya situation was the product of popular outrage at the way the Kenya Electoral Commission had ignored the will of voters.

The whole point of the regional intervention in Zimbabwe was to secure political consensus on the electoral process precisely so there would be no violence and to prevent a continuation of the political crisis that has plagued the country since 2000. How that has been twisted by Zanu PF points to the depth of the problems we face. As it stands, the election, with all its complex procedures, is unlikely to command public confidence. And that is something we should all worry about.