Why Zimbabweans fear an early election

Zimbabweans are concerned about increasingly strident calls by President Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF for early elections next year after the constitution-making process and a referendum. Although it is widely accepted that the shaky inclusive government’s life has to come to an end sooner rather than later, it is imperative that government creates a conducive environment that allows for free and fair elections. Anything less could have disastrous consequences for a country that is barely out of the woods following a decade-long economic calamity.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

November 14th, 2011

Zimbabweans are concerned about increasingly strident calls by President Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF for early elections next year after the constitution-making process and a referendum. Although it is widely accepted that the shaky inclusive government’s life has to come to an end sooner rather than later, it is imperative that government creates a conducive environment that allows for free and fair elections. Anything less could have disastrous consequences for a country that is barely out of the woods following a decade-long economic calamity.

There is an urgent need to have substantive and meaningful reforms undertaken, as dictated by the Global Political Agreement, before elections to avoid a repeat of the discredited 2008 presidential election run-off. And the last thing that Zimbabweans want is a repeat of the 2008 orgy of politically-motivated violence.

Hopes were high that the Inclusive Government (IG) – created in February 2009 and composed of ZANU-PF and the two MDC formations – would implement all the critical issues agreed in the GPA, paving the way for free and fair elections. However, almost three years on, Zimbabweans are seriously concerned about their politicians’ sluggish approach to resolving the GPA’s many outstanding issues, which are essential to ensuring that any polls are credible and violence-free and that Zimbabwe finally opens a new chapter.

Indeed, nothing substantial has been achieved since the IG was formed, save for the stabilisation of the economy. Instead the government of national unity has been a theatre of political battles, mainly between Mugabe and his ZANU PF ministers, and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC ministers. In August last year, the three parties endorsed and formalised the implementation matrix, which was approved and presented as part of the report to the SADC mediator, South African President Jacob Zuma. After that Zuma took the report to the SADC summit in Windhoek and it was approved by regional leaders, who gave Zimbabwean parties timeframes and deadlines on the implementation of the agreed issues.

The implementation matrix envisaged some issues being tackled immediately, others within a month or two, and a few continuously or on a periodic basis.The issues included interference with the rights of freedom of association, assembly and speech; electoral, media and security sector reforms; dealing with staffing issues at the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and disbanding the Joint Operations Command (JOC), which is a state security organisation that was reportedly behind the bloody presidential run-off poll of 2008 that kept Mugabe in power.

Zimbabwe’s cabinet approved the implementation matrix but nothing much was done afterwards.

And it is becoming increasingly clear that elections might be held in 2012 without the necessary fundamental reforms. Mugabe recently told his party supporters that “We must have polls which put an end to this dysfunctional political arrangement – the inclusive government which has served this country not as we desire. Already, we have lost three years of potential development. We cannot afford to go on in this indecisive, if not negative, way. We must put an end to this ugly political scene that is in our country.”

“We cannot go beyond March next year,” he added. “I will definitely announce that (election) date. It does not matter what anyone would say.”

It looks as if the elections will at least be postponed until after a referendum on a new draft constitution. But without the necessary democratic reforms, it is difficult to see how that referendum can be credible – let alone the far more hotly contested polls that could follow it.

Rather than resorting to rhetoric, now is the time for the three political parties to show commitment to ensuring the full implementation of the GPA. Without security sector reform, opening up of the airwaves, realignment of and staffing of ZEC in order to weed out central intelligence officers, military personnel and partisan officials from the election body and an end to selective application of the law, free and fair elections will be elusive. As long as the JOC, which is made up of army commanders, central intelligence organisation directors, police and prison commissioners, and defence and security ministers, continues to hold its meetings, there is understandable fear that the elections could be as bloody as in 2008. But ZANU-PF has refused to dismantle JOC, whose members have vowed that Mugabe will rule for life and that they will not allow anyone without war credentials to take over from him.

Current indicators of the situation on the ground are not good. There are widespread reports of politically-motivated violence across the country, including in Harare. The police, together with the Attorney-General’s Office, continue to enforce the law in a partisan manner. It has failed to investigate, arrest and prosecute known or identifiable perpetrators of politically-motivated violence. The culture of impunity by the police has remained intact despite the signing of the GPA.

After realising that Mugabe and ZANU-PF are already in full election mode, MDC-T finally awoke from its deep slumber recently and demanded the full implementation of the GPA and related democratic reforms before Zimbabwe can hold elections. The MDC-T even made it clear that it would not participate in any elections unless the following benchmarks are met:

  • Completion of the constitution-making process and the referendum;
  • Completion of the drafting a new voters roll;
  • Completion of media reforms;
  • Completion of legislative reforms;
  • Conclusion of outstanding issues on security sector realignment and staffing of ZEC;
  • Compliance by Zimbabwe with the SADC electoral guidelines; and,
  • Putting in placing mechanisms to ensure that violence will not be a factor in the elections.

I suppose it is better now than never. But the MDC formations have to remain steadfast in relation to their demands for reforms if Zimbabwe is to create an environment where journalists can operate freely without fear of being arrested or intimidated, political parties can have equal access to state media, particularly the only public broadcaster which has become a mouthpiece of ZANU-PF propaganda, political parties can campaign freely, and the independence of the electoral body is guaranteed.

The signs are worrying but it is still not too late to avoid a repeat of 2008. But genuine reforms need to be made – and made soon.  

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