A climate of tension

[posted by Michael Swigert, from Africa Action’s office in Washington]

As the elections approach and Briggs makes his way to Zimbabwe, the political environment is growing increasingly on edge. Human Rights Watch just released its latest report on Zimbabwe yesterday, to much high profile hand wringing by Western media. The damningly unambiguous title of the report speaks for itself: “All Over Again: Human Rights Abuses and Flawed Electoral Conditions in Zimbabwe’s Coming General Elections.” International Crisis Group today followed HRW up with its own new report on Zimbabwe, calling for the international community, lead by the African Union, to prepare “contingency plans” in the event that public frustration with election rigging leads to a violent crisis.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a consortium of independent civil society groups, put forward a similar assessment Thursday when it criticized recent changes to election laws as overly restrictive and likely to undermine the legitimacy of the polls in the eyes of the public.

What about the official observers put in place by SADC (the Southern African Development Community)? According to one representative, things are going smoothly. “The administrative arms of government are all working, everybody who is supposed to contribute to the election is doing his or her duties unhindered,” said Jose Marcos Barrica, Angola’s Minister of Youth, Sport and Culture and head of the SADC monitoring team.” SADC has been very uncritical of previous elections in Zimbabwe – at odds with the view of Western governments, international NGOs and the reports of many local civil society groups. HRW’s Georgette Gagnon is unequivocal in her view that March 29 represents a major test of SADC’s committment to democracy. “If southern African leaders are serious about ending Zimbabwe’s political crisis, they need to tell the Zimbabwean government there will be consequences if it again flouts its commitment to hold free and fair elections. Another round of flawed elections should not lead to business as usual.”

How do ordinary Zimbabweans and local community leaders feel about recent changes to the electoral laws? Do they think that SADC observers will accurately report their experience with the democratic process? How are they preparing for the changes (or lack thereof) they are expecting at the end of the month? The government is playing tough with Western journalists, screening vigorously for European or U.S. spies among the hundreds of reporters and camera crews hoping to converge on Zim, so reports over the next ten days in mainstream newspapers and other media coverage may be drawing from an even narrower base of content than usual for any African issue.

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