From anti-Blair to Auntie Blair?

Zimbabwe’s last parliamentary election, held in 2000, transfixed the attention of the international community. A substantial number of column inches were devoted to the campaign of farm occupations and human rights abuses that preceded the ballot—and the allegations of vote rigging that followed.

Now, the Southern African country is going to the polls for its next legislative election, on Thursday.
Once again, analysts say the run-up to the vote has not been conducive to free and fair polling.

Thursday’s ballot will see the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) square off against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s main opposition group. Three other parties and several independent candidates are also in the race.

Voters will elect 120 parliamentarians to the country’s 150-seat House of Assembly. The remaining 30 seats are to be filled with legislators appointed by President Robert Mugabe, giving Zanu-PF a built-in advantage as far as gaining a parliamentary majority is concerned.

In 2000, the MDC won 57 seats to the ruling party’s 62. The remaining seat went to the Zanu-Ndonga grouping.

About 30 people were reportedly killed in the violence that preceded the last legislative poll, and which was mostly directed against the opposition. While comparable violence has not been reported this year, rights activists say the level of intimidation in Zimbabwe remains high.

In a report issued March 21, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) claimed Zanu-PF was the only party that could freely campaign in the Mashonaland and Manicaland provinces (in northern and eastern Zimbabwe, respectively), where most people in the country lived. Opposition supporters who tried to defy this trend faced the prospect of assault, said HRW.

Zimbabwe’s government is also accused of using repressive laws and media restrictions to tilt the outcome of Thursday’s vote in its favour—and of withholding food supplies to its opponents. In certain constituencies, this could be a matter of life or death: the Famine Early Warning System Network, located in Johannesburg, said recently that 4,8-million of Zimbabwe’s 12-million citizens were in urgent need of food aid.

In addition, concerns have been expressed about the validity of the voters’ roll, with the Harare-based FreeZim Support Group claiming that more than two million of the 5,6-million names on the register may be suspect.

The vast majority of Zimbabweans living abroad (more than three million, by some estimates) will not be able to vote in Thursday’s poll; these expatriates are widely held to be opposition supporters.

The United States and the European Union, which implemented targeted sanctions against Zimbabwe after a flawed 2002 presidential poll, have not been invited to send election observers to Zimbabwe this year. Nor have the Commonwealth and the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Parliamentary Forum, which also spoke out against the 2002 vote.

The African Union and SADC have deployed observers in Zimbabwe, as have various African countries, including South Africa. However, Labour Minister Membathisi Mdladlana, who heads the government’s observer mission, provoked a storm of controversy when he declared soon after arriving in Zimbabwe that conditions for a fair ballot were in place.

Various local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have also been denied permission to observe the elections, raising fears that there simply won’t be enough monitors to cover all polling stations (said to number more than 8 000).

“There is a glaring gap in manpower to manage the polling stations. This is because not many NGOs have been accredited by the government,” said Nicholas Dube, an MDC spokesman in South Africa.

Last year, a set of electoral guidelines was drawn up by SADC in a bid to ensure that polls in the region conformed to international standards. These rules include requirements for political parties to be given equal access to state media, for impartial electoral institutions to be created—and a climate of political tolerance to be established in member states prior to voting.

But, reported previously, while the MDC has been given a certain amount of airtime on state radio and television, overall election coverage remains firmly pro-government.

In addition, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)—Harare’s answer to calls for a neutral body to supervise polls—has also come under criticism. According to HRW’s report of March 22, the law establishing the ZEC gives the government too much say over the composition of the commission, and creates “too many opportunities for ministerial intervention” in the ZEC for it to be considered impartial.

Nonetheless, some have voiced the fear that Mugabe’s gestures towards the SADC code will enable him to argue that he is living up to the spirit, if not the letter, of the electoral guidelines—and that this could give cover to regional leaders who are reluctant to criticise his conduct.

Certain analysts, believing that Zanu-PF has all but assured itself of victory on Thursday, have also begun speculating about the likely effects of a landslide victory by the party.

There are claims that Zanu-PF might use a two-thirds majority in the new parliament to alter Zimbabwe’s constitution—specifically those aspects which deal with presidential succession.

At present, the resignation of a head of state leads to elections for a new president. But with a substantial legislative majority, Mugabe could alter the rules to enable him to appoint a successor who would protect his interests after he stepped down, ensuring that he was never brought to book for abuses committed during his term in office.

“His deputy, (Joyce) Mujuru, may succeed him as president,” said Peter Kagwanja, director of the International Crisis Group’s Southern African Project, noting that close ties had formed during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle between Mugabe and Mujuru’s husband, Solomon.

Kagwanja was speaking at a conference organised by the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa in Johannesburg earlier this month.

The 81-year-old leader is presently expected to retire from office in 2008.

While many activists in Zimbabwe welcome the attention that is being paid to human rights abuses in their country, others find the experience a somewhat bitter lesson in the politics of race.

They point to the ruthless suppression of a rebellion in the 1980s by supporters of Joshua Nkomo, head of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, and ask why this was followed by an honorary knighthood for Mugabe in 1994—while the occupation of white-owned farms six years later elicited a different reaction from the international community.

The farm invasions were initially portrayed by government as a spontaneous attempt by veterans of the 1970s liberation war to correct imbalances in land ownership that dated back to the colonial era. However, government critics say the occupations were orchestrated by Harare in a bid to short up public support ahead of the 2000 parliamentary poll.

“When one is talking about politics of the West you cannot discount the issue of race as far as Africa is concerned. Clearly there has been a real problem amongst Western governments in dealing with the violence in Zimbabwe from the ‘80s and the post-2000 period,” says Zimbabwean political analyst Brian Raftopoulos.

But he notes that land seizures were also “seen as a challenge to property rights as recognised by the international financial institutions.” This has negatively affected investor confidence in Zimbabwe.

Raftopoulos says Mugabe has used the attention of critics in wealthy countries and Zimbabwe’s former coloniser, Britain, to his advantage at home and regionally; the president routinely accuses foreign powers of plotting the collapse of Zimbabwe—and Britain of wishing to recolonise the country.

“It has a resonance to those who were subjected to colonialism and racism,” says Raftopoulos.

The MDC is also portrayed by Mugabe as a puppet of the British government, while Thursday’s poll has been dubbed the “anti-Blair election” in reference to Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

But with economic mismanagement having resulted in triple-digit inflation, widespread unemployment and deteriorating social services—all this as Aids ravages the country—Raftopoulos believes many Zimbabweans realise their problems go beyond a former colony being punished for asserting its sovereignty.

Even the anti-Blair rhetoric may be missing its mark: a joke currently doing the rounds in Zimbabwe talks of an elderly rural man asking “Who is Auntie Blair?” after attending a campaign rally addressed by Mugabe.

With additional reporting by Sekai Ngara in Harare, and Moyiga Nduru in Johannesburg—IPS

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