/ 26 March 2008

Zim elections ‘not an even playing field’

A war of words has erupted ahead of election day in Zimbabwe this Saturday, with the opposition saying the government has already rigged the vote.

These elections were ”never meant to be an even playing field”, said Nkosana Moyo, coordinator of presidential hopeful Simba Makoni’s campaign, in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

Moyo told local and international journalists of a number of ”issues that are bothering us” ahead of the election.

He said he was concerned that police would be allowed into voting stations, ostensibly to assist voters who were illiterate or infirm. He said this went against Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocols and there was ”no doubt” that ”state agents” would intimidate voters.

He also said that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission had not been given enough time to educate voters about the ”complicated” elections.

Zimbabweans are to choose a president, parliamentary and Senate members as well as local councillors in Saturday’s poll.

”In the urban areas, there isn’t enough polling stations and again, this is just a manipulation of the system because Zanu[-PF] knows that their support is not in the urban areas,” said Moyo.

”They’ve made it pretty impossible for people to access voting points and go through in the hours allocated. To go through the complex system, each voter would have to go through the system in about 20 seconds … this is a clear impossibility … these things have been structured. Where Zanu is not strong, some people are not going to have a chance to express their wishes.”

He also said that some voters had still been able to register after the voters’ roll was closed on February 14.


Furthermore, reporters wishing to observe the election have only been accredited up to Saturday. ”Who’s going to observe the counting?” he asked. ”Are you [reporters] going to go back where you came from so you can be reaccredited?”

He said the government had created a ”façade that there is open elections, but in fact there is a lot of manipulation going on behind this”.

”If you feel that because we are participants [in the election] we are biased in our observations, it’s pleasing to note that the Pan African Parliament delegation has [also] made pretty well most of these observations that there are serious flaws in the way these elections are being conducted.

”We are pleased to see that and we also hope the SADC delegation will take its cue, and do a better job of observing these elections.”

Meanwhile, Movement for Democratic Change secretary general Tendai Biti was quoted as saying on Tuesday: ”The conditions are definitely not conducive for free and fair elections. Our supporters are still being harassed and the police are being used as weapons for intimidation.”

The United States State Department also criticised what it called ”significant shortcomings” in the electoral process, while the London-based rights group Amnesty International said police were intimidating opposition supporters.

The decision to allow police inside polling booths was among the issues of concern highlighted in a statement by the State Department that warned it could ”preclude free and fair elections on March 29”.

Similar fears were aired by Amnesty, which said in a report that police were ”clearly putting unnecessary restrictions on the activities of the opposition-party members, while allowing supporters of the ruling party total enjoyment of their rights”.

‘Everyone is campaigning freely’

Zimbabwe police dismissed such accusations as part of a Western ploy to discredit the elections.

”We get these statements each time we have elections and the idea is to declare that the elections were not held in a free and fair atmosphere if they don’t like the results,” chief police spokesperson Wayne Bvudzijena was quoted as saying. ”Everyone is campaigning freely. We have only had scattered incidents of violence.”

Makoni’s camp has complained its man was not being allowed to put his message across to voters in contravention of a new electoral law that compels state media to give equal coverage to all participants.

The only daily newspaper, the Herald, is controlled by the government and there are no independent television channels.

”We book, we pay and they say they won’t accommodate them,” said Denford Magora, Makoni’s spokesperson. ”Over the past two weeks, we have had eight adverts being turned down and we don’t know why.”

”Under different guises Zanu has hogged the major part of access to the media. Anything up to 90% is under the guise of news and other 10% is divided among the opposition parties — this was never meant to be an even playing field,” said Moyo in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

However, he maintained that ”all Zimbabweans are united. We need to move beyond the Mugabe era.”

Pilot arrested

South African embassy officials were granted consular access on Wednesday to the pilot arrested in Zimbabwe as he was about to ferry Tsvangirai to election rallies, a foreign affairs spokesperson said.

”We have through our embassy in Harare requested consular access to the pilot, which has now been granted by Zimbabwean authorities,” spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said.

Brent Smyth and three other people were arrested at Charles Prince airport outside Harare on Tuesday morning, in an incident that the MDC believes will hamper Tsvangirai’s ability to lobby voters ahead of elections on Saturday.

Mamoepa said his department was in contact with Smyth’s employer — ATS aviation services — and would offer full consular assistance to Smyth, after establishing that he is South African. It would also continue trying to find out why he was detained.

Zimbabwe’s police were expected to release reasons for his arrest at 2pm but postponed this to between 3pm and 3.30pm.

Smyth sent an SMS to his employer saying he had been detained and taken into custody at Harare central police station. The reason for his arrest was not immediately clear, but MDC treasurer general Roy Bennett said he had had a run-in with officials on Saturday over his flight plan.

ATS CEO Wessel van den Bergh said the company had hoped to glean information from the police’s press statement, as it had no further information.

Smyth’s fiancée, Drieksie Janse van Rensburg, said she had received an SMS from Smyth early on Wednesday saying he had been taken in for questioning. She said his clearance permit to be in the country had expired at midnight on Tuesday while he was in custody.