It will be an understatement that the general election coming in the next two days has become the most anticipated election in Zimbabwe since the independence elections in 1980. The yearning for change goes so deep and is so widespread that the air is literally pregnant with political tension and possibilities. Everyone knows it’s due in two days and this colors all activity with a rare sense of urgency.
The desperate living conditions in the country attach a heightened sense of importance to the next elections in a way that may even surpass the 1980 election. A veteran trade unionist i spoke to yesterday says Saturday March 29 is Independence Day. The election is what is on everyone’s mouth. As soon as families and friends exchange greetings with relatives trecking in from the diaspora, last seen a long time ago, the very next item of discussion is the elections, and the expectation for change is frightening!
Reports coming from rural areas tell an identical story. Opposition T-shirts are now visible in what were no-go areas. Mugabe has had to cancel five rallies in the rural areas due to poor attendance, including in his own home area of Zvimba! Some Chiefs and Headmen have openly denounced Mugabe and are stumping for the opposition!
I think that turnout in this election will be much higher than many originally anticipated. In fact, many political analysts have been taken back by the level of political interests evident in the last month or so. Morgan Tsvangirai’s rallies have been HUGE in ways that he even says ‘ surprised him.’
The only concern many in civic society are raising is that a lot of the people who are desperately calling for change may not be registered to vote. Many could not register on time because of pressing day to day survival matters!
The main question on people’s minds is no longer if Mugabe will be defeated in the election, it is now whether he will accept defeat. Many are not sure about that, thus creating many possible post-election scenarios that i will come back to at the end of this post. Mugabe’s failure to play by the rules in the past is creating a sense of skepticism in others as to whether their vote even matters.
Will the people of Zimbabwe be able to vote for a candidate of their choice?
Many of the civic society people we spoke to say the political environment is much more open compared to previous elections and feel confident that people will be able to cast their votes peacefully. There is virtually no violence at all in urban areas, the reported cases of violence in rural areas are isolated – nothing compared to the last general election.
Whilst the political environment seems to be open, democratic participation will be undermined on a technical level. The government’s recent unilateral delimitation of constituency boundaries and lack of clear knowledge as to the specific polling stations that people will vote from is creating so much confusion two days before the election. In addition, the government announced a smaller number of polling stations than they had previously promised. Urban areas, which are opposition strongholds, have less polling station than rural areas.
Intimidation/ coup threats
A major cause of concern is the statements by the commissioner of police, the commander of the national army and the commander of the prison services. These three generals have issued statements commanding officers and men and women under their command to vote for Mugabe and have openly said that they will not salute Morgan Tsvangirai or Simba Makoni. This has been correctly interpreted as a coup threat and does have the effect of intimidating the electorate. Even Mugabe, at a recent rally, said, ‘voting MDC is a waste of votes,’ because he will never allow the MDC to rule this country. All of this raises questions of whether Mugabe and his regime are prepared to respect the democratic wishes of the people of Zimbabwe.
Possible rigging through postal ballots
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission printed 600,000 postal ballots and postal voting has already started. This is the most insecure part of the voting process. No observers are monitoring this process and there are a lot of loopholes that can led to abuse. Independent civic bodies have no record of who these anticipated postal voters are and there are fears that the process will be manipulated to serve the incumbent.
Unequal access to state media
The government of Zimbabwe has failed to abide by the SADC protocol on elections’ requirement that all contesting parties get equal access to state media. Whilst the opposition can flight its adverts on TV, Radio and in Newspapers – state journalists have clearly been mobilised to abuse the opposition. Mugabe gets huge manicured coverage whereas the opposition is abused and misrepresented everyday in the state press. State journalists are nauseatingly partisan thus undermining the democratic process!
An unbalanced playing field
Mugabe’s refusal to adopt people driven constitutional reforms gives him an unfair advantage in this contest. Whilst the election environment is freer than before, it is still a constricted space. Security and media laws continue to undermine candidates’ ability to freely canvass and mobilise for the election. Candidates have had problems with door to door campaigns; the opposition can not organise peaceful marches to rally support. Using the controversial President’s Emergency Powers Act, Mugabe recently brought the police force into the running of the elections – something that goes against the original agreements made through the SADC dialogue. This was done to ostensibly allow the the police to assist illiterate and disabled voters. As partisan and violent as the Zimbabwe Republic Police is, its presence within 100 meters of a polling station can only undermine the integrity of the voting process.
Outright vote buying
The Mugabe government has of late been giving handouts to people in targeted communities in a way that is clearly designed to buy votes. This includes buses donated to communities a few days before the elections, cars to Chiefs, and manipulation of food aid. This obviously distorts the democratic process.
Do people have confidence in the invited observer mission?
The clear response to this question from all quarters of civic society is that they would have been more confident if the election had been open for observation to all who want to. Whilst there is appreciation that SADC, AU, and the Non Aligned Movement are present, and civic society is taking every opportunity to make representations to these observer missions, there is still lack of confidence that these missions will be able to observe the elections in an objective impartial manner considering their history of endorsing Mugabe’s ‘victory’ in previous controversial elections. Another concern is the refusal by the observer mission to put on record the coup threats by security chiefs and other concerns raised by civic society.
What is the priority after March 29?
The overwhelming sentiment is that the top priority is to fix the economy. People want an economy that provides their basic needs such as food, drugs, transports, water, electricity, health care, and education. People want an economy that gives them jobs and opportunities to live decent lives. People want an economy that can give them the confidence to raise their heads again. People want a people centered economy.
People centered constitutional reform is widely mentioned as a priority as well as a means to ensure that Zimbabwe has a robust framework on which to build an enduring democracy.
Do the people have confidence that the contending parties will tackle the pressing national priority
Support for the MDC by many civic formations is based on the understanding that an MDC victory will open up democratic space and create room for different civic groups to be able to advance their causes. For example the residents believe that they will have more room to push for local government reforms and the students believe that they will have more room to defend the right to education. Whilst there is overwhelming support for the MDC by civic society groups with some calling it ‘our baby,’ there is also a healthy skepticism of politicians and political parties and a civil society commitment to maintain a watch dog role even when the MDC comes to power. In fact, the main civic groups are planning a conference to discuss their role post-March 29 regardless of who comes to power.
Possible post March 29 scenarios
1. Mugabe loses the election but is declared a winner
There are now increasing fears that there will be violence if people turn out en masse to vote Mugabe out and then feel robbed afterwards. ‘Defend The Vote’ is emerging as a key slogan in the run up to the elections with many people not trusting that Mugabe will gracefully accept defeat. There were reports that Morgan Tsvangirai called for people to go back to the polling stations the next day to wait for the election results to be announced!
It is not clear whether there will be sustained mass action if Mugabe steals the election, but what is clear is that there will be overflowing anger and depending on the leadership that the opposition will provide, this can turn into mass action on a level never seen in post-independence Zimbabwe
2. Mugabe loses and Morgan Tsvangirai or Simba Makoni is declared a winner
There is fear that in this case they will be violence from the fanatical Zanu PF element that includes elements of the security forces loyal to the generals who have already threatened a coup, war veterans and youth militia.
3. A risk averse opposition and risk taking Zanu- PF
A respected academic at the University of Zimbabwe, Eldored Masunungure, recently characterised the opposition as ‘risk averse’ and Zanu PF as a ‘risk taker’. His postulation was that Mugabe will win the election through hook and crook and the opposition will not do anything beyond appealing to thE courts, a process that will drag on until the time of the next election.
Messages to the International Activists, especially in the U.S.
One of the messages is that the loudest voices on Zimbabwe from the U.S. are coming from groups like the December 12 Movement who extend unprincipled support to Mugabe. Civic groups here are calling for progressive U.S. organisations to be more vigilant in extending solidarity to progressive organisations in Zimbabwe to counter the damaging impact of misdirected solidarity efforts. Mugabe has skillfully projected Zimbabwe’s problems as a race and land issue, but many civic groups here want the discourse to go beyond this false framework and call upon progressive organisations internationally to help expose Mugabe’s fake ‘people politics’, that confuses many people internationally whilst shielding gross corruption, human right abuses, and his regime’s self serving policies that undermine social justice. A constant message from a number of organisations was ‘please do not tire’ – continue to talk and organize about Zimbabwe in your constituencies until democracy prevails.
Lets meet again soon, as we move into the historic March 29…
Today i head East to Mutare, th fourth largest city. The drive there passes through peri-urban and rural areas and this allows me to get a sense of the situation in the country outside Harare. Stay tuned…