/ 1 August 2013

Zim elections: Ignorance is not bliss

Zimbabwean citizens queue to vote in the national elections.
Zimbabwean citizens queue to vote in the national elections.

One of the things that really, really scares governments  – all governments, from America to Zimbabwe – is when their citizens have untrammelled access to information. It appears to be a central tenet of politicians that the less people know, the happier they will be, and the more you can lie to them. This is why the Mail & Guardian is running a map showing crowd-sourced election numbers from Zimbabwe. We believe that the more information people have, the better citizens they are, and the more civil society benefits.

We’ve put up several disclaimers on our Zimbabwe Elections voting trends map site (which might be down when you click because we're having trouble getting the data out of Zimbabwe).

The main one reads: "These results are preliminary (not official), and they are based on returns posted by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission at the polling stations, wards, provincial and national counting centre. Preliminary results are not meant to announce or declare that any particular candidate or political party is the winner."

We’ve also put up, in an unusually big font: “DISCLAIMER: This map does not reflect voting results but trends of how votes are being cast and offers insight into what will clearly be a closely contested election.” Note that these are preliminary results posted by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, as they are legally obliged to do. They merely show a trend, a trend that will be open to interpretation.

And of course, the interpretation bit is what governments hate. Citizens aren’t supposed to think, they’re supposed to listen. It’s incredibly old-fashioned, and the fact that the Zimbabwean government banned bulk SMSes over the elections, and attempted to restrict social media, is indicative of their archaic mindset. We happen to believe that people are capable of analysis and interpretation, and can tell the difference between unofficial preliminary trends and final, legally approved results.

The Zimbabwean government’s response to our voting trends map has been to publish a story in the Herald claiming that “Western think tanks and financiers are behind MDC-T’s plans to violate the Electoral Act by announcing contrived results ahead of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission with a view to drive supporters into the streets for premature celebrations to set the stage for running battles when the ZEC announces contrary results. This – sources close to developments say – is designed to set the stage for Egypt-style uprisings."

It’s patent nonsense, of course. And you have to wonder why it’s already assumed that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s final results will be different to the preliminary results they’re posting in the various districts. You also have to wonder why, if, as the BBC is reporting, “a senior source in Mugabe's Zanu-PF party … said 'We've taken this election. We've buried the MDC. We never had any doubt that we were going to win'," they assume that the premature celebrations won’t be Zanu-PF celebrations.

The truth is, the current ruling party of Zimbabwe wants to keep its citizens as ignorant as possible. The other awkward truth is that, if the Movement for Democratic Change were to win the elections, there is no guarantee that its attitude towards the liberating power of the internet would be entirely different. To all governments, power residing in the hands of the people is an uncomfortable situation.