Electoral reforms are a smokescreen


DENT Robert Mugabe launched his election campaign last weekend with a blistering attack on the opposition which he accused of colluding with the British to unseat him and recolonise Zimbabwe.

This was in sharp contrast to a diplomatic offensive to mollify increasingly impatient regional leaders through a raft of electoral reforms announced a week earlier. The objective was obvious — to win the forthcoming parliamentary election by any means possible and still secure a patina of international legitimacy.

Mugabe did not mince his words: the election will be dirty and must be won. He told Zanu PF youths attending the party’s fourth National Youth Congress in Harare: “We must teach them (the MDC) a lesson across the whole country that Zimbabwe will never be a colony again. Go and work … If we lose the elections, I will expect you in the youth league to be answerable.”

This is a presidential carte blanche writ large, and the culture of impunity for those who commit violence and other politically-motivated crimes in the name of Zanu PF is well-established as the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights recently noted.

To remove any trace of equivocation about the nature of their “national duty”, President Mugabe dubbed the poll the “anti-Blair elections” to “seal the ruling Zanu PF party’s victory over the British prime minister and his local puppets, the MDC”.

In the past parliamentary and presidential elections, Zanu PF hooligans and so-called war veterans were given instructions to detain and torture MDC supporters and former farm workers in so-called “orientation camps”. This time around they are being told to teach those still not converted “a lesson”.

The intention is to taint the opposition MDC by association with Mugabe’s arch-enemy, Tony Blair. Now that there is little to show for land reform, the bogey of a British military invasion has had to be invented.

A columnist writing in the state media recently exhorted people to “kill the quislings at the polls next year”.

The election strategists in Zanu PF cannot be accused of lacking ingenuity. Running parallel to the physical harassment, torture and beatings of opposition supporters on the home front is a well-calculated publicity blitz about electoral reforms for the consumption of regional leaders and the international community. These take the form of an independent electoral supervisory commission, one-day polling, counting of ballots at polling stations and the use of translucent ballot boxes — all standard procedures in the region.

Despite the bluster and grandstanding about Zimbabwe’s sovereignty, this period of his presidency is something Mugabe would probably like to forget as soon as possible. Charges of poll rigging and questionable legitimacy have dogged all his days since he was sworn into office in March 2002.

Any tinkering with the legislation that would whitewash his regime as reformist is therefore a logical step. He can tell observers that the laws were reformed to allow everybody the right to vote and reduce the chances of election-rigging. Whether theelection is won by hook or by crook, it can be argued that Western imperialists don’t want to recognise as fair an election won by a nationalist like Robert Mugabe.

But if the mumblings at last week’s African Union summit in Ethiopia are any cue, the days of debilitating third-worldly solidarity could be over for those who thrive on coercion to stay in power. It was perhaps good domestic politics to pull out of the “white Commonwealth” in a huff, but Mugabe can hardly repeat the performance at the AU.

And it looks like peer leaders won’t tolerate his blandishments for much longer. The “noting” of the African Commission’s searing report against Foreign Affairs minister Stan Mudenge’s strident protestations shows that the AU wants to shed the legacy of the Organisation of African Union and hold its members accountable. After all, that is the only way it can be seen as more than another toothless talk shop.

President Thabo Mbeki’s remarks, carried on Page 15 of our paper today, show that, despite scepticism in some quarters, he is serious about good governance on the continent and making the African Peer Review Mechanism a success.

It is the same seriousness that is called for in the Zimbabwean election. Electoral reforms must go beyond media publicity and address such issues as the role of youth militia, war veterans and members of the uniformed forces. Then there is the role of the public media which remains unashamedly partisan.

Sadc’s electoral guidelines, scheduled for approval in Mauritius next month, are very clear on the sort of environment member-states need to have in place ahead of polling. Zimbabwe does not come near to satisfying those requirements.

In case Mugabe’s injunction to the youths left them in any doubt about their task, that was clarified by Zanu PF’s national youth secretary Absolom Sikhosana. In an interview he told the state broadcaster the youths came out of the congress fully “charged to deal a fatal blow to Tony Blair and his lackeys in Zimbabwe”.

Zanu PF rarely uses metaphors.

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