It's do or die for MDC
Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) will face a daunting task if — as widely expected — it decides to contest the March parliamentary elections.
The MDC is on record that it will not participate unless Zimbabwe complies with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) guidelines on democratic elections adopted in Mauritius in August last year.
The SADC protocol requires the establishment of “all-inclusive, competent and accountable national electoral bodies staffed by qualified personnel”, constitutional courts to arbitrate disputes about political and civil liberties.
President Robert Mugabe’s government has enacted new electoral laws in a bid to comply, but the MDC has dismissed these reforms as cosmetic and piecemeal.
A supposedly independent electoral commission will be set up, but its composition is yet to be decided. Military and intelligence personnel continue to staff electoral supervisory bodies.
MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has visited several African and European leaders to argue his party’s case. Wherever he has gone, it is understood, the message has been the same: fight the election.
Many within his party view a boycott as politically dangerous as it would hand the ruling Zanu-PF victory on a silver plate, albeit with an attendant legitimacy crisis, and consign the MDC to the political wilderness.
However, if the MDC enters the election it will have to grapple with numerous political and legal obstacles.
Despite Tsvangirai’s acknowledgement that the police have proved more even-handed of late, political violence and intimidation persist.
The MDC is unlikely to be allowed to campaign free of attacks by Zanu-PF militants who are notorious for using terror as a political tool.
Harassment assumes many forms. The MDC’s offices have been raided on numerous occasions by police supposedly looking for “subversive” documents. MDC rallies and civic protests have been ruthlessly crushed.
African National Congress secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe, in a rare departure from the rhetoric of solidarity, this week said it was an “anomaly” that the MDC, which has strong representation in Parliament and controls several municipalities, should have to seek police permission to hold rallies.
“Over the years we have been saying to them [Zanu-PF] that you cannot have a properly registered party restricted in this way,” he said. “Indeed, the playing field should be levelled and the police should act in an impartial manner.”
Opposition and civic politics in Zimbabwe have been weakened by systematic repression underpinned by the use of draconian laws, such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, under which three newspapers have been closed and dozens of journalists arrested.
There have been several cases of individuals being fined or imprisoned for expressing even mild criticism of Mugabe’s record.
The Broadcasting Services Act has shut out all voices from the airwaves, except Mugabe’s, and just last month legislation was passed to prevent NGOs from participating in electoral or democratic education.
As shown by last weekend’s Zanu-PF primary elections, which were characterised by fraud, manipulation and threats, Zimbabwean authorities are either unable or unwilling to hold properly organised polls.
The registrar general last week placed prominent press advertisments to list voter registration requirements that many will find daunting.
Urban dwellers need to provide proof of residency, such as utility bills, which will discourage many of the MDC’s youthful supporters who are lodgers, while rural voters need to be approved by chiefs or headmen, all on the government payroll.
Zimbabwe’s 2000 parliamentary and 2002 presidential polls were hotly disputed. Some of the electoral petitions are still in the courts. Zanu-PF MPs disqualified by the high court continue to sit pending their appeals to the Supreme Court that — five years later — regards none of this as an urgent matter.
The MDC claims the voters’ roll is a mess. It wants an electronic version to conduct an audit of names of voters who died or emigrated years ago.
There have also been complaints of gerrymandering during the demarcation of constituencies. A recent delimitation exercise resulted in three constituencies being removed from MDC urban strongholds and transferred to Zanu-PF rural fiefdoms. The MDC says it is the only example in Africa of urban to rural migration.
Critics argue these problems can only be resolved through constitutional reforms.
The big worry is that, despite Motlanthe’s assurance that the election “must be beyond question”, anything short of this will simply result in SADC leaders claiming that the playing field was a little more even than in the past.