Referendum does not herald change

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THE referendum to decide the fate of the new draft constitution, which took Copac four years to produce and gobbled over US$50 million, was held last Saturday despite spirited court challenges by the Lovemore Madhuku-led National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) to derail the event amid fears of voter apathy.

Report by Herbert Moyo

Madhuku and his group campaigned for a “No” vote although the “Yes” vote campaign — sponsored by the coalition government comprising the country’s three main parties — won by an overwhelming majority.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) released figures showing 3 079 966 people voted “Yes”, 179 489 said “No”, while 56 627 ballots were spoilt in a largely peaceful poll deemed a curtain raiser for crucial general elections slated for mid-year.

The total figure of 3 316 082 — though less than half of the country’s citizens above 18 years who were eligible to vote — was far more than the approximately 1,3 million who voted in the rejected 2000 referendum when the opposition and civil society groups’ “No” campaign prevailed over the Zanu PF regime’s “Yes” campaign.

While the turnout was decent considering initial fears of apathy, it was still not impressive in view of the fact that those who were eligible to vote were perhaps more than eight million. The voters’ roll has 6,6 million people who could vote in the referendum, but more were eligible as one only needed to be above 18 and have a national identity card or passport.

While the NCA was defeated, it scrutinised and opposed the process, ensuring democracy came into play.

Commentator Takura Zhangazha said the referendum was practically a travesty of democracy and did not presage change.

“The announcement by Zec that 179 489 Zimbabweans voted ‘No’ to the draft constitution as opposed to the slightly over three million that endorsed it will give slight relief to the political parties in the inclusive government and the civil society organisations that were complicit in what can only be defined as one of the greatest political deceptions of Zimbabwean history,” he said.

“In accepting this result, there are those who will mistakenly equate the vote count to a dress rehearsal for the general elections scheduled for later this year. And this has already been hinted at in some press reports where the rural turnout is being equated with what has been referred to as a potential ‘landslide’ Zanu PF victory.

“Others, particularly the MDC parties in the inclusive government, will try and claim the vote as their own, together with their malleable civil society partners. In short, it is a pyrrhic victory for them no matter how they try to spin it.”

Zhangazha said while the “Yes” vote got a landslide, it was the paltry “No” vote ballots which mattered the most.

“The real issue at hand is the necessity of praising the 179 489 voters who chose to vote ‘No’ to this draft constitution. This they did against the run-of-the-mill politicisation of the process and the messianic tendencies of some of the political leaders who chose to think on behalf of all Zimbabweans without adequate consultation, and yet still ridiculously claim to have done the right thing,” he said.

“It is the 179 489 that stood firm against the elitist promises of power and resisted being herded like cattle into unprincipled terrains where the grass will not be greener for future generations of Zimbabweans. The ‘No’ voters have stood by basic democratic values and principles and for this, history will absolve them.”

While Sadc observers and the coalition government leaders were raving about the referendum being peaceful and credible, the crucial question remains whether this heralds a new era of non-violent, free and fair elections.

Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said the approval of the new draft constitution was an endorsement of a “new dispensation and a new value system that sets in motion a new and democratic paradigm for the country”.

“We have ushered in a new Zimbabwe that must necessarily come with a new culture of constitutionalism and respect for the rule of law. This means inculcating a new value system among Zimbabweans, especially politicians and the security sector, to respect and adhere to the constitution and stick to the cardinal dictate that no one is above the law,” Tsvangirai said.

He said the process was a “culmination of our struggle for a new dispensation for which a new, democratic constitution is a key milestone”.

“We celebrate this landmark achievement after many years of tears, sweat and blood, which has punctuated our experience since we started the democratic struggle through the constitutional movement which we began in 1997,” he said.

However, analysts remain sceptical, pointing out the referendum was peaceful largely because the main political parties were in agreement and political stakes not high.

Zimbabwe Democracy Institute director Pedzisai Ruhanya said it was misleading to draw conclusions from the referendum and extrapolate them with the forthcoming elections due to different political dynamics that apply.

“Who was contesting against whom in the referendum? In the elections, the stakes will be extremely high. Battle lines will be drawn between Zanu PF and the MDC formations,” he said.

“There is no indication Zanu PF will behave differently and stop resorting to intimidating as it has always done in the past. It will use its terror tactics and manipulate the process come elections, which will be a dog-eat-dog affair. The elections would be a different ball game.”

While the referendum event was largely peaceful, incidents before and after it showed political repression, violence and intimidation were still a problem. There were strong signs of resurgent violence, reminiscent of the 2008 bloodshed.

Before the referendum, there was a fierce crackdown on civil society organisations and incidents of political violence, including the arson attack which killed 12-year old Christpowers, the son of MDC-T Headlands official Shepherd Maisiri. Police even banned Tsvangirai from campaigning, although they later claimed it was a “blunder”.

MDC-T officials and staffers in Tsvangirai’s office Thabani Mpofu, Felix Matsinde, Warship Dumba and Mehluli Tshuma were the day after the referendum arrested on charges of allegedly “impersonating police officers, possession of documents for criminal use and breaching the Official Secrets Act”.

Harare lawyer and human rights activist Beatrice Mtetwa was also arrested for alleged “obstruction of the course of justice”. She was remanded in custody to April 3 although Mtetwa’s lawyers were challenging her detention in the High Court.

Political analyst and convenor of the Southern African Political Economy Series Trust’s policy dialogue forum, Ibbo Mandaza, expressed doubts on the prospects of peaceful elections.

“There is a lot of tension in the country and it is almost like we are moving towards the 2008 scenario,” Mandaza said.

Bulawayo Agenda executive director Thabani Nyoni warned Zimbabweans against reading too much into the referendum as “indicators of impending violent elections are clear for all to see”.

Jabusile Shumba of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for Zimbabwe said “the harassment of civil society has sent warning shots to the doubters that old order regime elements are yet to embrace a democratic dispensation”.

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