HomeOpinionImpediments to free and fair polls in Zim

Impediments to free and fair polls in Zim

OVER the past decade, elections have been a controversial business in Zimbabwe. The question on many people’s minds is whether Zimbabwe, two years after signing a global political agreement (GPA) that ushered in a power-sharing interim government in February 2009, is indeed ready for another election in 2011.

This question can be better answered by looking back at the conditions prevalent during the previous elections, highlighting the main causes for the violence and electoral irregularities that ensued in these instances.
In 1999, in response to mounting popular discontent over the lack of implementation of economic and political  reforms, gross mismanagement, excessive government expenditure and rising corruption, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions  formed a political party — the now well-known Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
This was also around the time when the fast-track land reform process became increasingly violent, with President Robert Mugabe encouraging the forcible acquisition of the mostly white-owned farms as a means of rewarding Zanu PF supporters for their loyalty, a move which further crippled the economy and led to chronic shortages of basic commodities.
In the 2000 parliamentary elections, Mugabe’s Zanu PF faced serious competition for the first time since Independence (Zanu PF won 62 seats and MDC won 57 seats out of the 120 contested seats). Later, elections in 2005 were marred by gross manipulation and suppression of dissent, and the MDC split in November 2005 after Tsvangirai overruled senior members who voted to participate in upcoming senate elections. The split led to the formation of two factions: the MDC-T led by Morgan Tsvangirai, and the MDC-M led by Arthur Mutambara.
In March 2007, Sadc mandated the then South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate between the government and the MDC. The goal was to pave the way for a new constitution and to create the conditions for free and fair elections.
However, Mugabe proceeded unilaterally to declare March 29 2008 as the date for the next elections, although the MDC had wanted to postpone them until a new constitution was adopted. Violence and intimidation of opposition supporters was again expected in the run-up to the March 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections. Some observers claimed that there was a skewed playing field ahead of the elections due to pre-poll manipulation and the accreditation of only friendly countries and institutions to observe the polls.
Such reports notwithstanding, and for the first time since independence in 1980, Zanu PF lost its majority in parliament to the opposition MDC.
The Zanu PF-led government, however, withheld the results of the presidential elections for several weeks, raising suspicions that Tsvangirai may have won an outright victory.
After finally releasing the results — with Tsvangirai winning 47,9% of the total votes compared to Mugabe’s 43,2%— the country was geared for a run-off on June 27 2008. A few days prior to the event, however, Tsvangirai announced his withdrawal from the race, citing the increased violence against his supporters as cause for his decision.
Have the conditions that led to the violence of 2008 changed enough to guarantee the holding of peaceful, credible elections in 2011? The answer is a resounding no. While the realisation of a power-sharing agreement in September 2008 saw an end to the international isolation of Zimbabwe, the negotiations failed to address the fears and demands of hardliners and potential spoilers on both sides of the political divide.
Most prominent in this regard is the failure to clarify the position of the security apparatus, or offer any assurances, such as amnesty for offences committed against the population, to secure the support of this set of actors when the deal was struck.
Prior to the inauguration of the interim government, the Joint Operations Command (JOC), chaired by the Minister of Security and comprising army commanders, air force, intelligence service and prisons, served as the central oversight body for all government operations and policies. Given the pivotal role played by the JOC commanders in the past, securing the future of this particular group of potential spoilers is essential for any sustainable political transformation to take hold.
Nearly six months into the rule of the inclusive government and following five failed attempts at scheduling its first meeting, the newly established National Security Council (NSC), — headed by Mugabe with Prime Minister Tsvangirai as a member — finally met in August 2009. However, it is reported that  JOC, while officially dismantled under the GPA and replaced by the NSC, still meets regularly and continues to maintain an influence on developments in the political sphere, particularly with regards to the implementation of the GPA and the associated difficulties in resolving the well-known outstanding contentious issues.
In conclusion, it should be noted that democratic procedures tend to exacerbate existing tensions in an already divided society. Social and political conflicts intensify with the launch of election campaigns as opportunistic politicians exploit such tensions to pursue their own vested interests. We have already witnessed this trend in the case of Zimbabwe.
An initial delay of elections could allow for an improvement of relations between the adversaries before entering into this inherently conflictual process. The South African transition in the early 1990s is a case in point.
By the time elections were held, the confidence-building efforts undertaken during the negotiation process had begun to bear fruit. The parties had begun to trust each other, political forces had collaborated with each other — hence decreasing the likelihood of a contested election or, in the case of South Africa, a hardening of the ethnic divide. In Zimbabwe, conditions have not been established to render any electoral process to be free of rigging, violence or intimidation.
However, one key challenge faced in Zimbabwe is the question of buy-in from all stakeholders involved in the transitional process. And given the lack of progress in fully implementing the GPA, the statement made by Mugabe at the signing of this historical document almost two years ago points to a not-so-promising absence of political will for reform: “The opposition will always want more than what it deserves. It will devise ways and means of getting power.”

  • Dr Judy Smith-Höhn is a senior researcher in the African Conflict Prevention Programme of the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.

By Judy Smith-Höhn

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