by Garth Cilliers

Voting in Africa

Doubts about a peaceful and violence-free Zimbabwe election

Finance Minister Tendai Biti
MinisterTendai Biti.jpg

While Kenya faces an uncertain future, with its president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta indicted to appear before the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity, attention now shifts to the next potentially explosive African election, set to take place in Zimbabwe in July. 

To complicate matters in Kenya, former prime minister Raila Odinga announced he would contest the election result in court. Kenya has, nevertheless, against all odds and expectations concluded a peaceful election.

After the constitutional referendum on 16 March 2013, the July election in Zimbabwe will be a watershed moment in that country’s history.It will be the most important election since 1980, when years of British colonial and white minority rule ended.

It's a make or break event for most Zimbabweans: it will either bring a legitimate, sustainable outcome or will further exacerbate the crisis that has dogged Zimbabwe for many years, particularly since the violent and bloody 2008 election, according to its finance minister, Tendai Biti.

Referendum

Zimbabwe's long-time political rivals came together on 16 March 2013 to vote 'Yes' in the referendum. This rare show of consensus, however, does not guarantee an end to political violence and intimidation ahead of the July election.

The new constitution is probably only an intermediate step. As a compromise between the country’s ruling coalition, it is seriously flawed and subject to an unspoken understanding that changes will be made once real progress has been achieved on the political front after the election.

Everyone in the coalition is on record that they will repeal large parts of the constitution should they win the election.

There persists an uneasiness that the referendum was a trial run for dark forces willing to disrupt the July election. There are early warning signs that it could still become violent as most Zimbabweans fear.

International observers

The issue of international observers as election monitors, from particularly the United States and Europe, is causing friction. In light of Western sanctions, Robert Mugabe’s rejection is understandable.

For the same reason – while in recent times it called for the lifting of sanctions – the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would argue that these Western monitors are essential to prevent a repeat of the 2008 events. 

Human rights organisations and non-governmental organisations seen as critical of President Mugabe and Zanu-PF are being targeted, with some having their offices searched by the police in clear attempts at intimidation.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission – widely believed to be a collection of Central Intelligence Organisation and security personnel, and believed to have organised large-scale rigging in favour of Zanu-PF in the past – warned that organisations facing police investigations would be prevented from monitoring the election.

It is an obvious attempt to intimidate and silence organisations considered as supporting the opposition. To many, this echoes events of 2008 when members of human rights and other organisations were arrested, detained and tortured.  Intimidation and fear remains the strongest ally for Mugabe and Zanu-PF.

In recent weeks there has been an upsurge in incidents and reports of intimidation and harassment by Zanu-PF supporters and of police action against political activists, the media, civil society groups and opposition party members.

The police in riot gear even blocked MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai from addressing a public meeting in support of the referendum.

According to media reports, police commissioner-general Augustine Chihuri has instructed the police to ensure a Zanu-PF victory, telling officers: “If you are not going to support Zanu-PF, you are not fit to be wearing the uniform and its decorated medals.”

Furthermore, police officers across the country were allegedly ordered to register as voters and, reportedly, to vote for Zanu-PF.

In response to these reports, a political analyst in Zimbabwe pessimistically remarked that “security chiefs will determine the outcome and what happens after the outcome, and they will certainly not accept an MDC victory."

It is little wonder that many Zimbabweans are concerned. Opposition supporters are often arrested on trumped up charges and, when trying to lay charges against security forces, are brutality victimised and charged with instigating the incident. 

One incident in particular should set off alarm bells. The police took peace activist Jestina Mukoko in for questioning for setting up a Kenya-inspired social media network aimed at warning voters about any political violence during the election.

Smartphones, the essential tools of a cellphone-based network developed by Kenyans during post-election violence five years ago, were confiscated under allegations that they were found to be ‘spying gadgets’ supplied by hostile forces (the West) to undermine Zimbabwe’s sovereignty.

The effectiveness of modern technology and the fear it causes among those facing an uncertain future should Zanu-PF lose the election, becomes apparent with estimates that 90% of Zimbabwe's 13 million population uses mobile phones. Internet users have more than doubled to 4.5-million in the past year.

Many Zimbabweans are hoping that the ‘Kenyan Project’, using GPS-equipped smartphones, will help to prevent a recurrence of the violence and intimidation of 2008.

The upsurge in violence, intimidation and harassment by Zanu-PF supporters and the police in the run-up to the referendum is raising fears that it is an omen of what can be expected before and during the scheduled election to secure another deceitful Mugabe victory. 

Voter registration

The programme to register voters for the election is underfunded and inaccessible to many Zimbabweans, amid widespread dismay that procedures are designed to frustrate people. Among others, it requires a potential voter to present a national identity card and a utility bill under a family name as proof of residential address. 

Local human rights groups estimate that only 20% of people on the current voters’ roll are under 35. And, according to minister Biti, two-thirds of the six million presently registered voters are deceased, and there seems to be no hurry to rectify the situation.

There are further suggestions that the voters’ roll has been manipulated with the help of external specialists.

This is an old proven ploy, which prompted minister Biti to remark: “Unfortunately, those four million who are dead have had a tendency to resurrect on election day." 

Financial constraints

According to Biti, Zimbabwe will struggle to afford a referendum and an election.

The referendum cost was US$85 million and, according to reports, enough money was raised to cover it.

But for the July election, Zimbabwe is looking for – and is actually expecting – the United Nations and the international community to provide funds.

Obtaining funds from foreign donors, particularly the West and the private sector, could be a hard sell. Western governments have been highly critical of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF human rights record.

Now they are expected to provide money for an election that Mugabe will not allow their observers to monitor.

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