Will it work this time?

We are now 6 months away from the next electoral hurdle for Zanu PF. They managed the first two contests with the MDC by manipulating the electoral process itself. In those halcyon days we had some access to the state media - television and radio and also a more even handed editorial policy in the state-controlled dailies. We also had the Daily News, which rapidly took over the top slot as a news source for the country.

The elections themselves - in 2000 and 2002, were internationally supervised but lasted two days and when the dust finally settled Zanu PF won on both occasions. In 2000 we had evidence of poll rigging to the extent of about 15 per cent of the poll - had this not taken place MDC would have won by a landslide. In 2002 Zanu had to go overboard to get a win and after ballot stuffing up to 800 000 false votes and preventing nearly 400 000 MDC supporters from voting, they got a small majority.

MDC took 37 of the 62 seats won by Zanu PF in 2000 to the courts in an electoral challenge and to date 12 cases have been heard, 7 won and 5 lost - all decisions were appealed. Last week the first of the appeals were heard and MDC won both - overturning two of the Zanu PF Members of Parliament elected in 2000. There is no doubt in my mind, that by any measure, MDC should have won both elections by a wide margin and had the Courts done their duty, MDC would have taken power at least three years ago.

Now we have another shot at the Zanu PF hold on power. We have been told that our strategy of sticking with change through democratic methods is a waste of time - that Zanu PF only understands force. Well that may be true, but, for good or bad, we remain committed to change via a democratic vote. With all its flaws we believe that only democracy offers African States a path out of ignominy and poverty.

Without a free and fair election Zimbabwe is doomed to further destruction and despair. Failure to organise our affairs so that this becomes a possibility would also have profound implications for the entire region. I remain astounded that our neighbors show such scant concern for the fallout effect on their own economies of the Zimbabwe crisis in their midst. In particular, South Africa simply cannot go on sacrificing at least half its growth potential just for the sake of maintaining its Pan Africanist stance over Zimbabwe's delinquency.

There are signs that the region is stirring and that decisions have been taken that "something" must be done. President Mbeki has appointed two very senior aides to work on the Zimbabwe issue and both Zanu PF and the MDC have been asked to report progress or problems every week. Mbeki has also told the SA press that if required " he would travel to Harare every day to ensure progress!"

But for battle weary Zimbabweans who have been through this whole charade twice before, the issue is will it work this time and why should they believe there are any signs that their collective voice will be heard?

The signs are not very hopeful. The Minister of Information has virtually said that the MDC would be given access to the state controlled media "over his dead body." Well if that is what it takes, Jonathan - we are willing to give it a go! I cannot see how anyone can claim that we have had a "free and fair" election, if the Daily News remains banned and the MDC has no access to any of the State controlled media. To be fair, this access would have to start soon and run throughout the election period.

Concessions have already been granted and I have no doubt we will see more in the next few weeks as Parliament sits to adopt the required changes that are needed to fulfill our obligations under the recently signed SADC protocols. Zanu PF will stall on these changes until the very last minute and then will implement them to the letter, not the spirit of the changes brought about by the new legislation.

Botswana is going through an electoral process right now - it is only 100 kilometers from where I write this, to the border - it might as well be on another planet. We watch the Botswana television each night and see the balanced presentation of the news and coverage of all political parties. We see the State President being given no special coverage and we see the adverts from the Electoral Commission. What a stark contrast to Zimbabwe!

Here the State media pour out propaganda 24 hours a day, coverage of the MDC is strictly limited to negative analysis and criticism. No exposure is given to any MDC statements or speeches. No rallies are shown on TV or covered on the radio. On the ground no public meetings can be held without permission and attendance by the CIO. More than half of all applications are turned down - most with no reasons given - many of the authorised meetings are disrupted by Zanu thugs. It is an intolerable situation from any perspective.

With over 400 political murders of MDC activists since 2000, there has not been one conviction. Even when the perpetrators are known and identified, no action has been taken. Zanu PF thugs can carry out acts of extreme violence against the MDC and know with confidence that the State will protect them.

All potential sources of financial and other support for the MDC have been closed down or cut off - now the NGO Act will also close down the vital civic society structures that have kept democracy alive in the recent years. It will also strip away from the opposition any remaining protection and support for their human and political rights.

But worst of all, it is now clear that they intend to control the supply of food to all dependent populations and to attempt to force the recipients of such aid to vote Zanu PF or face starvation. If our figures are right - and there is ample evidence now that our early estimates were overly optimistic, 70 per cent of our population will need help with basic food supplies in the next six months. All the mechanisms are in place and the food will come in from South Africa on Spoornet wagons. To access this food you will have to show evidence of support for Zanu PF.

Zanu is banking on this - plus a few other strategies, also based on primary human needs (shelter for example) and the tight control they will have over the whole electoral process - even after the reforms, to deliver another electoral victory.

For those of us who live here and who want change, we ask ourselves "will it work this time?" Strangely, I hope that Zanu has confidence that it will - because only then will they allow the country to vote under reasonable conditions. Given that freedom, even just for one day, we could be in for one of the biggest electoral shocks in recent African history - and with it the chance of a new beginning.

Eddie Cross Bulawayo
4th October 2004.