As the cat and mouse game around an election date for Zimbabwe continues, there is still much concern that another political crisis, and possibly a disputed poll, could have serious ramifications for the country and the entire southern African region. President Robert Mugabe’s weekend agreement, to seek a 14-day postponement of his earlier, unilaterally declared election date, may be little more than political theatrics.
All the fundamentals for a disaster in the making are in place, despite Mugabe on Saturday having agreed to a demand by a summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) that he seek agreement from his country’s constitutional court to postpone the 31 July poll date to 14 August.
The latest developments merely shift the focus away from crucial reforms required before elections to a squabble over a date.
The requested postponement, even if agreed to by the court, may prove to be little more than a face-saving exercise for the SADC. Earlier it had slipped up badly, providing Mugabe – probably inadvertently – with the perfect gap to use his constitutional court to unilaterally announce 31 July as the poll date.
Mugabe has all along sought an early poll to benefit him and his Zanu-PF party. But opposition parties, especially Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said the country was not ready and that the predominantly state-owned media and security sector first had to be reformed to allow for free and fair elections.
Apart from the crucial reforms not having been carried out, there were doubts whether the electoral commission, opposition parties, or an independent monitoring system were ready, while funding had yet to be secured. Zimbabwe, unable to pay for the elections, has approached the SADC and South Africa for funds.
Tsvangirai, prime minister in the fractious transitional unity government, mooted August 25 as the earliest possible poll date, while the SADC seemed ambivalent about the matter.
That was when a mystery ‘private citizen’ filed an urgent application with Zimbabwe’s constitutional court, asking for a ruling on an election date. The court, packed with judges apparently well-disposed toward Mugabe and his party, ruled in the president’s favour and directed him to proclaim the date for elections by 29 June and polls by 31 July .
Mugabe happily obliged, announcing 31 July as the poll date.
The unexpected move pre-empted and embarrassed the SADC, which was to discuss the date dispute at a planned summit two weekends ago. Mugabe was suddenly ‘unavailable’, and the summit shifted to this past weekend.
The SADC itself is partially to blame for this situation. Meeting on the sidelines of the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa toward the end of May, it provided Mugabe with the gap by endorsing what it called a “completed constitutional process” in Zimbabwe.
At the time, SADC executive secretary Tomaz Salomão said “our position as SADC is that … the next step is the election”, regardless of when it would be held and that it was “up to those (Zimbabweans) with the powers to decide”.
"We are waiting to hear the ruling of the Supreme Court (sic), and as SADC we will be there to support,” he said.
Mugabe used the court ruling and the SADC’s blank cheque to bypass parliament and, by presidential decree, to fast-track required changes to election laws.
Given its earlier stance, the SADC could hardly backtrack, nor order a member country to go against a ruling of its own courts and thus undermine the rule of law. All it could do was ask Mugabe this past weekend to approach the court for an extension.
This might have allowed the SADC to save face, with its facilitator, South African President Jacob Zuma, declaring the summit a success – but Mugabe still holds all the cards.
Zimbabwe’s chief negotiator at the summit, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa, tellingly said that while he would approach Zimbabwe’s constitutional court with the SADC’s request, the court may very well refuse it and elections would be held as scheduled.
He also ruled out any agreement by Zanu-PF on the need for reforms and said this had been made clear to the summit.
However, even if Zanu-PF were to agree to the reforms demanded by opposition parties, it is unlikely these could be concluded within 14 days. Neither is it likely that opposition parties, monitors and the electoral commission could be election-ready in the time available.
Furthermore, it seems unlikely that legal challenges to Mugabe’s announcement of an election date will succeed.
Probably the only other card left to the SADC is Mugabe’s request for $132 million in election funding, which it has yet to decide upon.
Meanwhile, there are increasing signs that Mugabe’s loyal security sector could create mayhem in the event of his not winning the polls. The police, military and intelligence service have in the past played a harshly oppressive role to keep Mugabe and his party in power.
Security chiefs have openly indicated their support for Mugabe and Zanu-PF, saying they will not recognise a president without “liberation war credentials”. This led to the MDC holding talks with them to try and avert a potential coup.
Harassment of the independent media is also on the increase, and two journalists were arrested for writing about these talks.
Tsvangirai is seeking support from the SADC and the AU, as guarantors of the 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA) that created the interim unity government, against the threat of a military coup and wants them to pressure Mugabe to implement the reforms.
A report by Human Rights Watch – The Elephant in the Room – states that reforming Zimbabwe’s security sector is key to ensuring the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are credible, free and fair.
With their vested interests tied to continued Zanu-PF rule, many senior security force officers are unlikely to move aside without a fight.
And, Mugabe himself is not planning on leaving State House anytime soon. During a recent television interview, he said his people still needed him to lead them and that it was “not time, sir, it doesn't matter how old you are, to say goodbye”.
It seems Zimbabwe may still face an unstable period ahead, possibly including a repeat of the violence and mayhem of the 2008 elections, continued Western sanctions and more economic hardship.