Democratic Elections?

We have seen some pretty dramatic action in recent weeks - the AU condemnation of the Mugabe regime for human and political rights abuse, the SADC adoption of the general rules for elections in the region. Then there was the unilateral adoption by Zanu PF of some reforms of the electoral process in Zimbabwe. The question is, are these enough to enable Zimbabweans to exercise their political preferences freely and without undue pressure in the forthcoming parliamentary elections due in March 2005? I would respond, not by a long way! Here are my reasons for saying so.

The Rule of Law.
The SADC norms state quite clearly that the rule of law must apply for there to be a conducive environment for free and fair elections. This assumes an independent and professional Judiciary, a non-political Police force and an administrative system for justice, which is apolitical and professional in every way. None of these conditions exist in Zimbabwe. We have a bench that is clearly loaded with Zanu PF functionaries - many of whom have compromised their integrity in a serious way. We have a Police force where from the Commissioner downward, the key players are politically motivated and operate in the interests of the ruling party. The Attorney Generals office is simply a branch of Zanu PF in disguise.

Even the AU report stated that those guilty of criminal acts are not being brought to justice while the justice system is now used to harass and impede the opposition at every turn. False accusations, thousands of activists arrested at the slightest provocation and even worse abuse of the legal system are so common that nobody expects to receive justice at the hands of the authorities. Those guilty of gross human and political rights abuse in the name of the Party are confident of protection.

The Freedom of Information.
In Zimbabwe today we have 14 newspapers, 4 radio stations and two television stations. Of these only three weeklies are completely independent - one is a regional paper and the other two national, but expensive to buy. The State and the ruling party tightly control over 90 per cent of the information reaching the public. The onslaught of propaganda is relentless and absolute. Some of it is so ridiculous that it is counterproductive but some is also clever and deceitful. It has influence and the voice of the opposition is almost totally silenced. To hear the news on what is really happening you have to own a short-wave radio and listen to SW Radio from London, or Studio 7 in Washington or VOP from Madagascar. A total of 5 hours of broadcasting a day - all between 18.00 and 21.00 hrs every day.

The Smith regime restricted short-wave radios and this has continued to today so listenership is very limited. Studio 7 has access to medium wave broadcasting from Botswana but this is only for 1 hour a day and very limited in coverage. Even so - it is probably the most frequently heard independent voice. Zimbabwe today is one of the most closed and tightly controlled countries in the world - ask any international journalist who tries to operate here.

At the heart of this is AIPPA - the Act passed two years ago to control the media and to restrict the activities of journalists. Until AIPPA is scrapped or suspended there is little likelihood of any gain in the freedom of speech in Zimbabwe. There is no sign of this happening. It is also essential that the most popular newspaper in the country (Daily News) - be permitted to resume operations.

The Freedom of Association.
The harsh apartheid era legislation known as POSA requires that any gathering of more than 3 people to have been cleared with the Police. This has had the effect of seriously curtailing all forms of public discussion. Mayors are not allowed to speak to ratepayers, political parties routinely have their meeting banned or are confronted with demands that the security police attend to hear what is discussed. The restrictions are not limited to political activities but to any activity that is perceived by the authorities as being potentially hostile to its interests.

Under POSA it is almost impossible to campaign freely and the Act is also widely used as a pretext for the arrest and detention of activists from all walks of life. The threat of arrest and detention under POSA and the subsequent experience of life in Police cells, filthy, crowded and cold, without food or clean water for days on end, is very intimidating. Unless POSA is also suspended or scrapped, free and fair elections are impossible.

Freedom to Support the Party of your Choice.
If you support the MDC in Zimbabwe in any tangible way - attendance at meetings, financially or in any other way (printing their leaflets and posters) you might have your premises burned down, the tax authorities might descend on your bookkeepers or you might simply be gunned down one night. Am I exaggerating? Ask any businessperson or farmer who has supported us in the past 4 years. I can give you examples of all these activities being used to intimidate support.

The State has also outlawed foreign funding to political parties and is now preparing to do the same thing to NGO's. They are also restricting foreign funding to the electoral process itself - unless they control the use of those funds completely. Political activity takes money - lots of it, Zanu shamelessly uses state funds and equipment in its campaigns - the MDC staggers from one financial crisis to the other. It is difficult to even find a printer who will print party flyers.

An Independent Electoral Commission.
We have one - but it is headed by an army officer and staffed by military personnel and others who are carefully screened. Just to make sure it does not run "free and fair" elections the IESC is also a toothless bulldog, without any real autonomy. The promise by Mugabe to change this is completely empty of substance and there is no likelihood of any substantive improvement unless some regional content is injected into the institution with independent funding.

A Voters Roll.
This is a joke. It is controlled by a very sophisticated computer based system - funded originally by a foreign donor and is linked directly to the Zanu PF membership system. The opposition has not had sight of this for 3 years and is now denied access "by law" under recently adopted regulations. This is an unbelievable state of affairs in a so-called democracy. Apart from that our intelligence tells us that the roll has some 6 million names on it including over 2 million ghost voters. It is likely that far from a "one man one vote" election, the process controlled by the IESC and the Registrar Generals office will be exclusive rather than inclusive. Denying the vote to hundreds of thousands who should be able to vote and permitting ballot stuffing and other forms of voter fraud that were so prevalent in the 2002 presidential elections.

The Control of the Voting.
In a normal situation this is not considered a major factor - the process is so public in most countries that fraud at the polls is very difficult to set up. In Zimbabwe this is not the case - vast swathes of the country are virtually "no-go areas" for the opposition or civic society. In these areas there will be thousands of polling stations controlled by party faithful and military or security personnel. At these remote, difficult to get to, polling stations voter fraud is not only simple, it can be expected.

Only the creation of a genuine Independent Electoral Commission with its own funding and staff and the free movement of civic groups and opposition representatives can prevent this. In 2002 not only was this denied to the MDC with predictable results but also it can be expected that Zanu will be planning exactly the same strategies for the March 2005 elections. Counting the ballots at the polling stations will simply exacerbate the problem of control under these conditions.

Why is this so important? Simply because this may the last chance of Zimbabwe finding its way back into the mainstream of the global community and with it some prospect of recovery via a peaceful, democratic process. But for this to happen the elections must be free and fair - and time is running out for the conditions to be created in time for any form of legitimate democratic elections. If this does not happen then the current crisis will persist at enormous social, economic and political cost. Cost not just to Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans, but to all who live in southern Africa.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 26th July 2004