Democracy Watch - 2

Administering a democratic system is a huge task if it is to be done properly. In the first place the voters must be adequately informed of their options, they must then be allowed to vote freely and without interference or intimidation and then the vote must be counted and reported accurately.

Three simple tests of a democratic system. How does Zimbabwe measure up just weeks before the next scheduled elections for Parliament?

1.. Information. We have 15 newspapers, 4 radio stations and one television channel broadcasting in Zimbabwe. Of these 7 newspapers and all electronic media are owned by the State, 6 of the other newspapers are owned by Zanu PF in various forms and only two weeklies are really independent.

The State/Zanu PF controlled media is tightly controlled and may only carry news and information that is approved by the officials that are responsible for media coverage. The opposition may not even advertise in the Zanu PF controlled media. The news and other coverage are totally hostile to the MDC and its civic allies and are used simply to promote the position of Zanu on every issue. Speaking to the average citizen who is not politically minded and who have no alternative sources of information it is astonishing how effective this propaganda machine has become.

Particularly damaging has been the loss of the Daily News and the total control of the electronic media. I estimate - based on distribution numbers and hours of broadcasting every day that less than 5 per cent of media exposure is committed to telling the truth and that includes three external radio stations broadcasting into Zimbabwe on shortwave. This control of the media is reinforced by total control over all forms of public meetings - controls which do not apply to Zanu PF.

2.. The Right to Vote. We have at most 3 million people in the country who are eligible to vote and might register and then physically turn out. The rest are outside the country (3,5 million adults) or are too young, or are ruled as being ineligible for one reason or another. The voters roll has 5,6 million names on it - 2,6 million "ghost voters". Some are dead; some are duplicates others are now outside the country.

All those who have left the country are to be denied the vote - they are a group that is now potentially larger than the voters who remain in the country. We are the only country in the region that denies their citizens who are living abroad the right to vote. In fact when you work out who can vote and will be allowed to vote, it represents only about 42 per cent of potential voters who are alive!

On top of this astonishing fact, the whole process of voter registration and maintaining the voters role is partisan and controlled by officials - paid by the State -but loyal to Zanu PF. The systematic exclusion of voters who might be sympathetic to the MDC is carried out on a regular basis. Voter registration is intensive in areas controlled by Zanu PF and where they believe they can control the vote in an election.

3.. The Vote Itself. In the two previous elections where Zanu faced serious opposition, they used the mobile stations to rig the election and to stuff ballots. They also used the two days over which the election was held to decide what was needed to win and then to carry out the required activity. In those elections we had about 4500 fixed stations and 1100 mobile stations - each mobile using 4 separate locations to record votes. In 2002 the number of polling stations in MDC strongholds were reduced and the rate at which votes were recorded held down so that up to 400 000 potential voters were eventually turned away.

This time the vote will be on one day and there will be no mobiles. To capture 3 million votes at the rate of 2 minutes per person would require 10 000 poling stations. In fact, given the inefficiencies of the system I estimate we will require 12 000 polling stations to record the vote in one day.

In 2002 we counted the vote at 120 counting centers. This time we will count at all 12 000 polling stations. The logistics of this situation are mind-boggling. It is one thing for a government to deploy staff and officials to 12 000 polling stations, it is quite another to supervise what goes on at each polling station - especially in the more remote rural areas where Zanu thinks they can control the vote. The potential for vote rigging and ballot stuffing is enormous. If MDC cannot cover every polling station with trained and committed personnel from the opposition we are likely to see a repeat of the 2002 elections and end up with a government that is not recognized as being legitimate.

In the Ukraine election just re-run, the international community deployed 8 500 observers. In Zimbabwe we can expect no more than a few hundred at most - and then these will have limited resources for travel and communications. Any meaningful supervision must therefore come from the MDC. NGO's this time (unlike 2000 and 2002) will be excluded by law, from the whole process from voter education to polling agent training, deployment and supervision. We will need at least 60 000 polling agents and at least 1200 vehicles to deploy people and supervise activity and to respond to any problems on the day. Our agents will have to be deployed on Friday and stood down on Sunday. Many will require food and other support in the field.

This whole process is supposed to be under the control and management of an Independent Electoral Commission. New legislation provides, not for an Independent Commission but a "Zimbabwe" Electoral Commission, which is not independent or autonomous and has not even been appointed. Instead we have a totally partisan structure in place, which is managed by State Security Agents and the Military personnel, all of whom are selected for their loyalty to Zanu PF.

In 2002 this partisan structure was overseen by a group of powerful Ministers who actually gave the orders and decided what was needed for Zanu to "win" at any cost. No doubt the same situation will prevail this time around - the only difference being that they will not have Saturday night to decide how far to go. This time those decisions have to be made in advance and the action to be taken agreed and implemented during the one day of voting.

For voters in Zimbabwe who are eligible - remember that you can check your vote and change your constituency if it is wrong, from the 17th to the 30th of January this year. Go and do this as whatever the conditions under which we will vote, the March 2005 elections may be an opportunity to change the circumstances under which we live today.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 12th January 2005.