Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), celebrated its fifth anniversary over the weekend. However, ceremonies to mark the event were overshadowed by the question mark hanging over the party’s participation in next year’s parliamentary election.
In his anniversary message, MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai said the party has dealt a blow to “the myth of invincibility that has come to be associated with [President] Robert Mugabe”.
“We must place on the public record that our major victory in the past five years was in building a force that has changed the political landscape of Zimbabwe and ushered in an era of active, multiparty politics in the country,” he noted.
In 2000, the MDC — then only nine months old — became the first opposition group to challenge the ruling Zanu-PF party’s vice-like grip on power by winning 57 of the 120 seats in Parliament.
As 30 legislators are appointed by the president, the MDC would have needed 76 seats to gain control of Parliament — a body that has been dominated by Zanu-PF since Zimbabwe attained independence from Britain in 1980.
Since then, the MDC has lost six of its seats in by-elections marked by the political intimidation that has come to characterise life in Zimbabwe over the past five years — and which is overwhelmingly directed against the opposition.
Last month, the Geneva-based International Parliamentary Union said the government has done little to stop youth militias linked to the ruling party from persecuting and torturing MDC parliamentarians.
With only six months to go before the 2005 poll, Zimbabwe’s courts have yet to rule on appeals concerning 25 of the 37 seats the party says were illegally won by Zanu-PF in 2000, due to violence and intimidation by ruling-party supporters. Of the 12 seats already ruled on, the court decided in favour of the MDC for seven appeals — dismissing the other five cases.
The opposition has also found itself in court over treason charges filed against Tsvangirai, who is awaiting a verdict on charges of plotting to assassinate Mugabe. If convicted, the MDC leader faces the death penalty.
Partly as a result of intimidation, the party — a product of the trade-union movement — has laid down a set of conditions for its participation in the 2005 election. It is hoped that these conditions will correct an electoral process that is skewed in favour of the ruling party.
“We are preparing for elections … What we did was to suspend participation, but we did not boycott the election,” said Tsvangirai this weekend, while addressing a rally in the southern city of Bulawayo.
In addition to operating in a violent environment, the opposition also finds its activities circumscribed by the Public Order and Security Act — which requires that the police approve all meetings of a political nature.
Under the equally infamous Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Zimbabwe’s sole privately owned daily — The Daily News — was closed down. This has created a situation where public perceptions of the MDC are, largely, in the hands of the state media — which typically portrays the party in a negative light.
The MDC says it will not contest the 2005 poll if the government fails to reform Zimbabwe’s electoral system along principles agreed by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) at a two-day summit held in Mauritius that ended on August 17.
These principles stipulate, among other things, that the 13 SADC member states should allow opposition parties to campaign freely. They also require countries in the region to set up impartial electoral institutions.
“[The] SADC must push Mugabe to honour his word, and do so early enough to have our elections,” said Tsvangirai in his anniversary statement. He has dismissed as cosmetic last week’s announcement by Harare that it is going to establish an independent electoral commission to monitor polls.
The MDC says its participation in the poll will also depend on it being given unfettered access to the media — and on whether a transparent voter registration process is put in place.
However, with certain analysts already expressing doubt as to whether Zanu-PF will meet all of these demands, the MDC’s statements are viewed by many as a signal that the party will boycott the 2005 election. This has split public opinion down the middle.
Some feel the move was ill-timed, coming at a time when the SADC appeared to have departed from tradition by applying pressure on Zimbabwe’s government to reform its ways.
The MDC, the argument goes, should have “tested the waters” first to take the measure of reforms duly proposed by authorities — which also include a pledge to provide transparent ballot boxes, reduce the number of voting days from two to one and allow ballots to be counted at polling stations.
Others such as Lovemore Madhuku, chairperson of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), says the “boycott” is long overdue. (The NCA groups civic organisations that are pushing for the adoption of a new Constitution in Zimbabwe.)
Madhuku, whose offices were ransacked by police earlier this month, describes the MDC’s decision to suspend participation as a “wise move” — and almost inevitable, given the course of democratic struggles elsewhere.
“All people in the world who have fought for the genuine opening-up of democratic space have not had the privilege that the MDC has had — participating in the system, while on the other hand fighting to change it.”
In addition to the disputed parliamentary election of 2000 and presidential poll in 2002, the past five years in Zimbabwe have witnessed the enactment of a controversial land-reform programme that began with farm occupations by war veterans and ruling-party militants. Most of the farms concerned were owned by minority whites — a legacy of colonial rule in Zimbabwe that has proved resistant to change in the two decades following independence.
The farm seizures precipitated an economic crisis in the country, which has seen its economy contract by about 7% a year. Inflation has soared to 400%.
Some have accused the MDC of failing to provide strong leadership against this backdrop of political and economic crisis. They includes the outspoken Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, who describes the party as “sitting back” and failing to harness public anger.
Brian Raftopoulos, a professor at the Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies, says the MDC needs to reflect critically on the state of its organisational structures and problems of internal accountability.
But, “Most importantly it will need to offer a message of hope to its existing and potential supporters, and provide a programme of action that will look beyond the 2005 elections.” — IPS