Zimbabwe: Another Election Chance
Zimbabwe: Another Election Chance
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Africa 4 minutes

Zimbabwe: Another Election Chance

Zimbabwe's crisis - political as well as economic - remains as deep as ever, with widespread abuse of human rights and ever harder lives for the average citizen.

Executive Summary

Zimbabwe's crisis -- political as well as economic -- remains as deep as ever, with widespread abuse of human rights and ever harder lives for the average citizen. The ruling ZANU-PF party continues to use repression and manipulate food aid unscrupulously for partisan purposes. African institutions and above all South Africa need to apply pressure to make the crucial elections scheduled for March 2005 free and fair in order to give the democratic opposition a chance. Western friends of Zimbabwe like the U.S., UK and EU should tone down rhetoric and get behind the African efforts if a vital chance to resolve the crisis peacefully is not to be lost.

President Mugabe has used economic bribery, bullying, and propaganda to stage something of a comeback. While polling data in Zimbabwe is controversial, a recent finding suggests his support may have increased from a 2000 low of 20 per cent to as much as 46 per cent, and his job approval from 21 per cent to 58 per cent. It is just possible ZANU-PF could win those elections in a relatively straightforward way now that it has used so many unfair advantages to tilt the electoral playing field.

As the party prepares for its annual Congress in the first week of December, however, it is riven by bitter ethnic, generational and even gender disputes. Important decisions foreshadowing an eventual successor to Mugabe are due but he may well continue to keep the key contenders guessing. ZANU-PF seeks a sweeping victory in the parliamentary elections so it can amend the constitution at will, perhaps to create a new executive structure and an honorary position into which Mugabe might step before his term expires in 2008.

In recent months, Zimbabwe has come under African scrutiny in regard to those elections. In July 2004 the executive council of the African Union's (AU) foreign ministers adopted a report severely critical of the government's poor human rights record. AU heads of state deferred early action, but the following month the Southern African Development Community (SADC) adopted a protocol setting out principles and guidelines for democratic elections in the region.

Partly out of his renewed sense of confidence, partly in reaction to the pressure from African quarters he cannot afford to dismiss and has thus far always been able to work an accommodation with, Mugabe endorsed the SADC principles and guidelines. The specific legislative steps he indicates he will take to implement them, however, are flawed, such as a new electoral commission whose independence will be doubtful because he and his party are to have overwhelming influence on selection of members.

As matters now stand parliamentary elections would clearly not be free and fair. If the technical reforms now under discussion are taken but are not matched by other measures -- repeal of repressive laws and an end to political violence such as that widely practiced by state-sponsored youth militias -- the best prospect in sight is a C-minus election that is fairly clean on election day but deeply flawed by months of non-democratic practices. There are no signs that the government is yet prepared to take those essential additional steps.

The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) must revive itself quickly and develop a unified strategy if it is to make the most of the March elections. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has at least been acquitted of one set of trumped up treason charges but a second such case still hangs over his head, the party remains persecuted in numerous ways, and its leadership is uncertain over how to respond. The decision taken in August 2004 by the MDC leadership group to boycott the March 2005 elections unless there can be a guarantee in advance that they will be free and fair will be reviewed in the coming weeks. A last minute decision to boycott can always be made if circumstances compel it, but it is critical for the MDC's credibility and effectiveness as a political force that it participate now in the political and electoral process to the greatest possible extent. At the same time, it should seek to maximise understanding from SADC and other observers of the need for genuine electoral reforms to be implemented before the elections.

If something is to be made of the electoral opening, small and problematic as it is, it will need to be those with the greatest leverage -- Mugabe's fellow Africans -- who make most of the running. South Africa, the state with by far the most influence on its neighbour, remains committed to quiet diplomacy, and other African states strongly prefer to emphasise gradual change -- a "restoration" of at least better governance -- rather than sudden, and as they tend to see it, destabilising "regime change". If they are to be effective in the next few months, London, Washington and other Western capitals, whose own rhetoric has at times been considerably more forceful, need to harmonise policies and support the Africans.

Specifically, efforts should focus on holding the Mugabe regime to its commitment on the SADC Protocol and getting observation missions into the country immediately so they can monitor and raise warnings about the broader environment in which the election process unfolds. If ZANU-PF does not undertake major reforms in the coming weeks, and most particularly if a genuinely independent electoral commission is not operational at least two months before the scheduled date of the elections, those missions should press for rescheduling at least to June, when the term of the present parliament expires. The MDC should conduct a full campaign.

If these things can be done, it may just be possible for the 2005 elections, whether in March or slightly later, to be free and fair enough to mark an important turn back toward genuine politics as the means for resolving Zimbabwe's crisis. Out of that might come a division of power based on genuine election results, perhaps followed for the first time by productive inter-party discussion on the country's future.

It must be said frankly that the odds against such a relatively optimistic scenario are substantial. Because the international community appears to lack the will or the means to formulate and implement a more comprehensive and forceful strategy at this time, however, it is worth dedicating the next few months to even a small chance. The alternative is a continued slide toward national and regional chaos, which would ultimately require the international community to consider much graver measures in even less promising circumstances.

Pretoria/Brussels, 30 November 2004

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