Zim: Crackdown on opposition ends period of goodwill

Glimmer of hope: Voter turnout for the referendum was high, but arrests just a day later dimmed the euphoria. (Alexander Joe/AFP)

Glimmer of hope: Voter turnout for the referendum was high, but arrests just a day later dimmed the euphoria. (Alexander Joe/AFP)

The excitement in the queue defied the gloom cast by the Harare suburb Mbare's notoriously rundown flats, as voters lined up to make their mark for a new Constitution.

And as each voter emerged from the tent, walking back down the queue, there would be the odd high-five, a cheer and pinky fingers raised proudly to show the voting ink.

At one of the polling stations at Nenyere flats voters queued past the base of the local Zanu-PF militia, known as Chipangano, a fenced compound consisting of two shacks, with party slogans painted on the iron sheeting and a makeshift flag fluttering from a wire. Outside the shack, two youths watched the line move.

The turnout of 3.3-million voters – the largest ever in a Zimbabwean poll – was higher than anticipated. The excitement was a big change from the last time people voted, in the 2008 runoff, when many cast their ballot only out of fear.

But days later, the euphoria of finally getting a new Constitution is already threatened by anxiety as the run-up to the election begins.
While both Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) campaigned for a "yes" vote for the Constitution, Zanu-PF appears to be in a hurry to end the honeymoon. Police have already boldly ignored a court order, which critics see as Zanu-PF sending a quick reminder that not even a new Constitution will automatically bring change.

As the votes were being counted on Sunday police arrested four members of Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's staff and detained human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, keeping her in custody despite a court order for her release. The four are accused of impersonating the police and possessing material for criminal use.

According to civil rights lawyer Tawanda Zhuwarara, the law the four are being charged under is "so wide, it criminalises actors who get paid for portraying police officers".

The Law Society of South Africa said the arrests threaten Zimbabwe's move towards reform.

"The steps that the Zimbabwean government is taking to advance its stature in the world will be compromised by actions which undermine the rule of law further," the society said.

The weekend arrests were a continuation of weeks of harassment of activists. These actions include the questioning of Jestina Mukoko, whose Zimbabwe Peace Project compiles data on violence. Police have also seized hundreds of imported radio receivers they claim will be used to broadcast "hate speech" during elections.

Police spokesperson Charity Charamba said the actions were necessary to curb "the negative influence and subversive activities" of non-governmental organisations.

But Tsvangirai said they were a sign that Zanu-PF was preparing once again to intimidate voters.

"These are signs of a police force that has become an appendage of a political party, which is now showing signs of panic and fear in light of the imminent prospects of losing the forthcoming election," he told reporters.

He said he had hoped the new Constitution would convince his opponents to adopt "a new culture of constitutionalism and respect for the rule of law", but cautioned, "let us not despair, because in any transformation, especially towards the end, there are always going to be events deliberately designed to stifle change and distract us from the key goal."

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