Referendum: Voters weary of polls

A LOW turnout appears likely in tomorrow’s constitutional referendum as Zimbabweans seem to be suffering from political fatigue, with the coalition government’s exhortation for people to vote “Yes” on the Copac draft constitution and token publicity campaigns on the process set to fuel voter apathy.

Paidamoyo Muzulu

Unlike the run-up to the 2000 constitutional referendum when there was frantic activity with opposition political parties and civil society vigorously campaigning for a “No” vote against the then Zanu PF government’s “Yes” campaign, tomorrow’s polls appear in danger of being characterised by apathy despite the constitution-making process having taken four years to complete at a cost of more than US$50 million.

Zanu PF, MDC-T and MDC, bitter rivals in the 2008 poll, are united in campaigning for a “Yes” vote, while civil society groups such as the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) are campaigning for a “No” vote.

NCA leader Lovemore Madhuku and his allies are opposed to the Copac draft constitution, arguing it is a flawed document as it was a compromise between three self-interested political parties in government.

After gathering views from the people following an outreach exercise, political parties argued since the constitution-making process was a parliament-led process, they had the final say as parliamentarians are elected representatives.

In contrast, civil society organisations argue the constitution-making process should have been people-driven in keeping with provisions of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) — a precursor to the unity government. The organisations have also been stressing people should have been given at least two months to study the draft as the GPA states, instead of the one month the coalition government has granted voters.

Usually, apathy in the Zimbabwean electoral process has been caused by violence, intimidation and fear, among other factors such as chaotic voters’ registration and depressing campaigns driven by abusive propaganda and character assassination.

Zimbabwean voters’ perception of politics — how they see parties, candidates and electoral events — has been increasingly changing, particularly because of poll disputes and the resultant political stalemate since 2000.

Blessing Miles Tendi, an African History lecturer at Oxford University in the United Kingdom said: “Zimbabweans have lost faith in political processes. There is deep disgruntlement among the electorate over politics that is soulless and is not attractive.”

Voter apathy is a growing problem in many countries in Africa and around the world. Causes of voter apathy include people not knowing enough about the parties, candidates running for office, negative campaigning and advertisements, and the limited impact of their ballots on the outcome, service delivery and democracy.

For the past four years, the coalition government partners acrimoniously haggled over the contents of the draft constitution until the principals — President Robert Mugabe (Zanu PF), Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T), Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, and Industry and Commerce minister Welshman Ncube (MDC) — agreed to a compromise document in January, paving way for it to go to parliament and then tomorrow, referendum. The meeting of minds among the political protagonists and their agreement to campaign for “Yes” vote ensured the referendum would be a foregone conclusion.

The poorly-publicised and hurried national awareness campaigns for the draft charter have not done much to energise a weary electorate which has gone to polls six times since 2000, with each vote registering a decreasing turnout. Copac held a disjointed “Yes” vote campaign in the last two weeks. The campaign has been limited to 144 meetings compared to over 1 400 meetings during the first outreach.

Zimbabwe held a constitutional referendum in February 2000, general elections in June 2000, a presidential election in 2002, general elections in 2005, senatorial elections 2005 and harmonised polls in 2008.

Political analysts say the electorate’s lack of interest is a muted protest against drab politics which leaders should be wary of ahead of general elections.
Blessing Vava, a political analyst, says most Zimbabweans are unhappy with the way the coalition government has handled the constitution-making process, besides that the outcome is a given.

“Zimbabweans were given little time to debate and scrutinise the document; so abstaining from voting would be a protest that they are not happy,” he said.

Political analyst Joy Mabenge observed: “The main reason for reduced interest could be that in 2000 there was heavy contestation between the “Yes” and “No” vote with all opposition forces — civil society and political parties — singing from the same hymn book against the draft informed by both process and content. Now, with the main political parties in agreement, there is no competition associated with the process since the result is almost like a fait accompli — something done and can’t be reversed.”

Hopewell Gumbo, an independent social and economic justice activist, said: “People are now more concerned with social and economic survival issues rather than the hullabaloo over a new constitution. So most people are unlikely to go to vote in the referendum tomorrow. There is likely to be serious apathy.”