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Zimbabwe: Some paradoxes of non-participation
THE late MDC MP David Mpala who was stabbed with knives by ruling Zanu PF mobs. He later died from the injuries
Last month, in preparation for possible South African-brokered talks with the ruling Zanu PF party and as alleged state-sponsored by-election violence erupted, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change reserved the right to boycott the 2005 poll.
Since then government has published changes to the Electoral Act that strengthen its grip on elections, including the electoral commission (led by military figures), observers and monitors (only civil servants allowed), voter education (only by government) and who is able to vote.
Decreed by President Robert Mugabe before a flawed 2002 presidential poll but later ruled unconstitutional by the courts, the amendments have been slammed by civic groups, among other things for violating universal and Southern Africa Development Community electoral norms and standards.
In a briefing note on 16 March the MDC said that terror wreaked by Zanu PF supporters and youth brigades during the Zengeza by-election, which the ruling party won, showed yet again that the government was prepared to violate SADC protocol regarding conduct of elections:
'The MDC continues to be denied access to the voters' roll, state media remains the exclusive domain of the ruling party, MDC campaign efforts are frustrated by a politicised police force whilst Zanu PF youth militia are permitted to intimidate and attack voters without fear of prosecution.'
Such a political environment precludes a free and fair election in March 2005, said the MDC, which decided against participation unless there is 'genuine commitment' by Zanu PF and Mugabe to manage the poll freely and fairly. The party drafted 15 conditions to participation, based on SADC protocols that Zimbabwe ratified in 2001. In summary they are:
1. A genuinely independent electoral commission (IEC) to run the electoral process and election.
2. The exclusion from the IEC of partisan officials and members of the military.
3. A fresh voter registration exercise conducted by a new IEC with UN assistance.
4. An electronic copy of the voters' roll for all political parties and interested people.
5. Repeal of aspects of draconian media laws that curtail media freedoms.
6. Repeal of aspects of harsh security laws that curtail election campaign freedoms.
7. Electoral Act changes to conform with SADC norms not covered by the 15 conditions.
8. Reversal of decisions that closed The Daily News and stopped media operating freely.
9. Liberalisation of the broadcast media and fair coverage by the state media of all parties.
10. Complete disbanding of the youth militia
11. Translucent plastic ballot boxes of secure, single-piece, construction
12. Sufficient numbers of polling stations to enable voting to take only one day
13. Unhindered access to elections by international, regional and domestic observers.
14. Counting of ballots at polling stations in the presence of polling agents and observers
15. Use of visible, indelible ink to identify people who have voted.
Systematic oppression using bad law and brutal force, along with unfair electoral conditions in Zimbabwe provide the foundations for a solid argument against participation in the March 2005 election. But boycotts are a serious - and frequently paradoxical - matter.
Non-participation by a major opposition party founded on credible problems undermines the legitimacy of a poll and the government it elects. At the same time, it enables a ruling party to easily sweep back into power, claim some popular support and cling to vestiges of legitimacy still widely afforded polls that are flawed but at least held.
Boycotts can be powerful democratic statements by the oppressed, who by refusing to vote can erode an unchallenged ruling party's claims to popular support by forcing a low turn-out. This stay-away tactic was used in neighbouring South Africa by Asian and mixed-race people who rejected, with sometimes single-digit turnouts, the apartheid state's attempts to co-opt them into self-determination via separate, race-based Parliaments.
Again there is a tension, because non-participation is political action stripped of any hope of making a difference - a cause without an effect. In the case of Zimbabwe, the waters would further be muddied by high levels of political intimidation and violence, which will deter voting as surely as any stay-away.
The Zimbabwean government, its supporters and the security forces are accused of waging a campaign of oppression against the MDC and of committing thousands of human rights abuses including murder, assault and torture.
For its part, Zanu PF claims that its supporters are also being intimidated and attacked by the MDC, which is intent on overthrowing the government by force, and that political turf wars are to blame for much electoral violence. While elections might be marred by political violence, says the government, they are nevertheless legitimate.
Current levels of political violence raise the moral question of whether opposition supporters ought to be asked to vote at all, given the dangers involved. If an MDC victory is impossible, why take the risk of voting? The same could be asked of MDC leaders, who have suffered gross rights abuses in the past four years.
A recent study by the Cape Town-based Zimbabwe Institute, 'Playing with Fire', revealed that nine in 10 MDC MPs surveyed had suffered rights abuses at the hands of security forces or Zanu PF supporters. A total of 78 MPs and parliamentary candidates had experienced 616 incidents - and in no case had a perpetrator been arrested or charged.
Three MPs had died after vicious assaults, a quarter had survived murder attempts and three had had staff murdered. Over a third of MPs had been assaulted, two thirds arrested and 16% tortured. MPs houses had been burned, cars stoned, relatives and colleagues abducted and some killed. The message, reports the Institute, is clear:
'Any person who contemplates standing for the opposition in 2005 in the existing environment is well aware that they will pay dearly for this choice.'
Further, there comes a time when participating in an illegitimate regime becomes morally dubious, as it lends credibility to that government. The MDC worries that its credibility is also put at risk by its continued advocacy of patience to supporters without any tangible result - or any reciprocal self-control on the part of Zanu PF.
Against these problems are pragmatic concerns for Zimbabwe and its people. Even if the MDC is not allowed to win, there is an argument that by continuing to secure Parliamentary seats for its leaders the party keeps at least some democratic space open in an increasingly repressed society, media and legal system. Were it not for this space, the party might be less able to thwart calls to arms from some angry supporters.
Writing in South Africa's The Star, commentator Allister Sparks argued that the setting of a 2005 election date will spur South African President Thabo Mbeki - the world's 'point man' on Zimbabwe - to take action in getting the parties to the table for talks. And indeed, Mbeki met separately with Zanu PF and the MDC leaders in Pretoria last month.
But brokering an agreement will not be easy, Sparks comments, and even if MDC conditions are met the cards will be stacked against the party - first, under the Constitution Mugabe can appoint 30 MPs of his own choosing, meaning the opposition has to win a 64% majority to control Parliament and, second, even if this is achieved Mugabe will be able to choose his Cabinet and rule by decree until the next presidential election in 2008.
To remove either obstacle requires the Constitution to be amended, which needs Zanu PF's cooperation or Mugabe to step down so that both general and presidential polls can be held:
'Neither appears likely. So the question is: Can
Mbeki mount enough pressure to remove this Catch 22 which makes success for the
opposition virtually impossible? If not, the whole thing becomes a pointless
This column is provided by the International Bar Association - An organisation that represents the Law Societies and Bar Associations around the world, and works to uphold the rule of law. For further information, visit the website www.ibanet.org
20 April 2004
Mutare Mayor under seige
More that 2500 Zanu PF women and youths have beseiged the Mayor of Mutare's offices at the Civic Centre in Mutare. The Zanu PF mob, who were ferried in Arda Chisumbanje, Arda Middle Sabi, Arda Banket and Zanu PF trucks have sealed off the offices since 8.00am this morning, and are carrying a coffin inscribed "MDC rest in peace" and "Kagurabadza rest in peace". They have been supplied with food from TNT food outlet, which belongs to Shadreck Beta, a Zanu PF Central Committee member. Kagurabadza has made nine calls to the police, who have not responded.
Details can be obtained from the MDC Provincial information Officer, Pishai Muchauraya on 263 11 761 080.
MDC Informatin and Publicity Department