Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is wavering between piecemeal reforms and panicky repression as he struggles for survival ahead of next year’s crucial general election.
Mugabe said during the opening of Parliament this week that his government would adopt electoral reforms, but at the same time warned of looming legislation to gag telecommunications and NGOs.
In a speech dominated by promises of a variety of populist legislative changes, Mugabe told the House of Assembly the sweeping electoral reforms were designed to level the rigged playing field that opposition parties had been complaining about for years.
“On the basis of both the national debate and, of course, our experiences in running elections since 1980, government is proposing far-reaching reforms to our electoral law,” he said.
“These proposed changes, which also take into account ongoing regional consultations on developing electoral norms and standards for the Southern African Development Community [SADC], envisage the creation of an independent electoral commission as the principal player in running all our elections.”
The new electoral legislation is likely to come under scrutiny at the SADC organ on politics, defence and security cooperation now under way in South Africa.
Mugabe, who is clinging to power amid rising popular discontent over economic failure, also said the modifications would include reducing the voting period from two days to one. Counting of votes would be done at polling centres instead of at the controversial national command centre.
Zimbabwe has the most archaic electoral system in the region. Election officers, some of whom are retired army officers, are still appointed by Mugabe without adequate checks and balances.
Opposition Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai said that while his party welcomed the changes, there was a need to “clean the poisoned political environment to ensure free and fair elections”.
“Electoral reform is a central part of political and democratic transformation. Electoral reform, in the case of Zimbabwe, is a serious constitutional matter,” he said.
“To be effective, electoral reforms need a solid backing of independent institutions — dealing with electoral disputes, handling political excesses and taking care of the whole electoral process.”
Tsvangirai said Mugabe’s Zanu-PF militias, who have been accused of causing violence, must be disbanded; the police must be non-partisan; the army excluded from elections; the ruling party must desist from using food as a political and electioneering weapon; and international observers must be given free access to monitor the polls.
Constitutional lawyer Lovemore Madhuku described the reforms as “old wine in new bottles”.
While brandishing the largely cosmetic reforms, Mugabe proposed new security legislation affecting the Internet, telephones and NGOs.
Mugabe said his government would introduce a Security of Communications Bill to control the Internet and telephones. This law, he claimed, would “bolster the security of our nation”.
He also said that NGOs needed to be controlled because they interfered in politics. As a result a new law would be introduced to regulate them.
“We cannot allow them to be conduits or instruments of foreign interference in our national affairs,” Mugabe said.
The NGO legislation would give the government powers to refuse to register organisations or to ban those deemed objectionable.
The General Secretary of the SADC NGO Council, Abie Ditlhake, says the council will have to scrutinise the laws to see “if it is contrary to the Memorandum of Understanding [we] have signed with the SADC Secretariat”. He says SADC member states “committed themselves to creating an enabling environment for NGOs to operate freely”.
The convenor of the South African chapter of the African Union’s civil society structure, Eddie Makue, described Mugabe’s statement as “problematic”. On Mugabe’s references to foreign donors driving the NGO agenda, he said it was embarrassing that African governments were not doing much to break the reliance of African NGOs on foreign funding. Makue says NGOs “derive their agenda from the social context within which they operate and the communities they serve”.
Analysts described the proposed laws as part of Mugabe’s broad campaign of repression, which has led to the closure of newspapers, persecution of free press journalists, purging of the judiciary and endless attacks on opposition and civic activists, as well as the perpetration of human rights abuses.
Venturing into familiar territory, Mugabe said his regime remained “patently opposed to the current mutant strain of imperialists who have arrogated to themselves the role of patrons of democracy and human rights, which they shamelessly trampled in pursuit of bloated self-interest”.
Mugabe also said his regime is determined to root out corruption. The continuing anti-corruption crackdown seems to be the centrepiece of his rumbling electioneering in the run-up to the poll that he has dubbed the “Anti-Blair” election, or “Operation Anti-Tony Blair”, as Zanu-PF political commissars would like to put it.
The Tribune shut down
The Harare High Court in Zimbabwe on Wednesday sanctioned the closure of the independent weekly newspaper, The Tribune, writes Cheri-Ann James.
The newspaper is owned by Zanu-PF MD and veteran journalist Kindness Paradza.
The closure came as a result of the alleged failure to notify the Media Information Commission (MIC) of ownership changes and the appointment of an unregistered journalist.
The MIC is a state-appointed commission that registers newspapers in Zimbabwe.
High Court Judge Tendai Uchena ruled that the new owners of the newspaper committed irregularities and that the commission had the power to cancel the paper’s licence.
The commission is alleging that the newspaper has not adhered to registration requirements as outlined in the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
On June 10 The Tribune‘s publishing licence was cancelled for a year.
It is the third Zimbabwean newspaper to be shut down under the country’s draconian media laws in less than a year. The Daily News and its Sunday edition were shut down last September.
The Tribune, however, is appealing the court decision, stating that the alleged violations did not justify such extreme punishment.