Gloomy Zim election countdown begins

And so, another year in Zimbabwe—and in less than three months’ time, another election. It is a prospect that few seem to welcome.

Compare the political environment in the country now with what it was ahead of the last parliamentary poll in 2000, and the lack of voter enthusiasm is not hard to understand.

To begin with, a raft of repressive legislation has been passed that will be the envy of ruling parties elsewhere that are seeking re-election.

The Public Order and Security Act, passed in January 2002, gives officials the power to ban political rallies. It has also criminalised statements that could be seen to undermine the authority of the president, insult him or spark feelings of hostility towards him—thereby sounding the death knell for the average opposition stump speech.

The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (passed in March 2002) has restricted the activities of the independent press by obliging journalists to obtain accreditation from a government-appointed Media Information Commission.

“Local journalists risk criminal charges if they try to speak the truth.
Besides, where would they publish? Most dissenting media voices have long ago been shut down,” says an internet-based activist group, Sokwanele (which means “enough”).

In addition, a Non-Governmental Organisations Act, given the green light by Parliament last month, bans foreign human rights groups from working in Zimbabwe. It also prohibits local NGOs that focus on rights from receiving foreign funding.

As money for financing these organisations is scarce in Zimbabwe itself, the Bill could force many local NGOs to close their doors—including several that deal with voter education.

This prompted the European Union to note in a statement issued on December 22 that the NGO Act, which still awaits President Robert Mugabe’s signature, “could have a significant negative impact on the forthcoming elections in Zimbabwe”.

Then again, those groups that do survive the funding crunch may also find themselves prevented from educating voters. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Bill, also enacted last month, empowers the newly created commission to decide which organisations should be allowed to raise awareness among voters.

Electoral guidelines

The establishment of the ZEC was apparently intended to bring Zimbabwe in conformity with a set of electoral guidelines adopted in August 2004 by the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Among other things, these stipulate that polls should be supervised by impartial institutions, that all parties should have access to state media—and that campaigns should be free of political harassment.

Last November, the government-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) refused to accept adverts for the opposition despite guarantees of payment. The ZBC also routinely condemns the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

However, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and others point out that the way in which ZEC commissioners are appointed still gives the government too much say over who sits on the body.

“They [the ruling Zanu-PF] have put everything in place to win the elections,” says Lovemore Madhuku, head of the National Constitutional Assembly—a body that lobbies for constitutional reform in Zimbabwe.

As a result, the MDC has suspended its participation in the March vote. Party officials say a final decision on whether to contest the poll will be taken this month, based on whether the government has made real progress in adopting the SADC guidelines.

But, “There is more to gain by not participating and mounting a campaign to build a mass movement,” observes Madhuku.

Opposition followers were the recipients of sustained abuse and harassment by state agents and pro-government militants in the run-up to the 2000 parliamentary elections and the 2002 presidential poll. About 30 lives were lost in the parliamentary election alone.

This prompted the EU and United States to impose economic sanctions and travel restrictions on Mugabe and other high-ranking officials.

For his part, Mugabe accuses Western powers of conspiring with the opposition to topple his government. Zanu-PF has dubbed the upcoming poll an “anti-Blair election”, in reference to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Ordinary Zimbabweans struggling

While the members of Zimbabwe’s political elite appear well insulated from any threat to their financial well-being, the same cannot be said for ordinary Zimbabweans.

The government’s controversial land-redistribution programme and a costly involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s civil war are among the factors that have led to precipitous economic decline in Zimbabwe.

The land-reform initiative began in early 2000, when veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of independence and other militants occupied white-owned farms, reportedly to protest against racial imbalances in land ownership that dated back to the colonial era.

While most of the country’s prime agricultural land was in the hands of minority whites at the time, it has since been alleged that the farm invasions were orchestrated by the government in a bid to gain public support ahead of the 2000 parliamentary poll.

In the five years that followed, Zimbabwe’s economy contracted by 40% due to ravages in the agricultural sector—and the resultant uncertainty in other areas of business. Inflation, down from 623% last January, is still at a staggering 149%. Unemployment runs at 70%.

Food production also dropped dramatically. This, combined with the effects of a ruinous drought that has affected several SADC countries over recent years, has put millions of Zimbabweans in the position of requiring food aid.

In May last year, Harare prevented the United Nations World Food Programme from updating its assessment of the amount of aid needed in the country. This has raised fears that the supplies that are available will be distributed to gain votes, rather than based on need.

“There’s no doubt that the cleavages of discontent have widened,” says Brian Kagoro, chairperson of Crisis in Zimbabwe—a coalition of civil society organisations.

Confident of victory

While some claim that levels of repression in Zimbabwe are lower than they were ahead of the 2000 and 2002 votes, largely because Zanu-PF is confident of a victory in March, the MDC has issued a report that details extensive human rights abuses against its members last year.

The party says seven of its legislators, 53 MDC officials and hundreds of activists were subject to arbitrary arrest, abductions, intimidation, assault, rape and destruction of property in 2004.

Fear of abuse and financial need have driven vast numbers of Zimbabweans abroad to South Africa, Britain and elsewhere (some estimate that 60% to 70% of the productive adult population, more than three million people, has left the country).

Most of these individuals will be unable to vote in the March poll. The Electoral Bill, passed shortly after the ZEC Bill, restricts the casting of postal ballots to government employees and their spouses.

Dissenting voices within Zanu-PF have been dealt with as ruthlessly as those outside the party.

“Zanu-PF has become increasingly authoritarian in its own internal politics,” notes Kagoro.

Perhaps the most high-profile victim of these actions has been Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, who was removed from the highest decision-making body in Zanu-PF last month. This came after he organised a meeting of ruling-party members to oppose the election of Joyce Majuru, who enjoys the support of Mugabe, to the post of Vice-President.

Moyo also had well-publicised differences with other Zanu-PF stalwarts. Additional reports, denied by the government, indicate that he has tendered his resignation.

Zanu-PF has been in power in Zimbabwe since the country gained independence from Britain in 1980.—IPS

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