Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Crisis Talks Stalling

Ruling party reluctant to concede to key opposition demand - electoral law reform - with elections just months away.
By Joseph Sithole

The talks between the ruling ZANU-PF party and both factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, aimed at resolving the country’s political and economic crisis seem to be stalling. The MDC is pushing for hard bargains but President Robert Mugabe’s negotiators are not giving in.

The fractured main opposition is demanding that the country’s repressive electoral laws be repealed, or at least amended, ahead of next year’s harmonised presidential, legislative and local government elections.

The party is also demanding an end to politically motivated violence against its supporters as it seeks to make the most of the ongoing negotiations with ZANU-PF, being mediated by South African president Thabo Mbeki. It has also called for a new constitution to replace the Lancaster House Constitution, hammered out at independence and amended 18 times in the past 27 years. But Zimbabwe’s autocratic 83-year old leader has rejected a new constitution outright.

Analysts say the process of amending or repealing repressive legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act, Posa, or the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Aippa, would require an exhaustive lobbying of ruling party members of parliament which would lead to a postponement of the elections, something Mugabe is against.

A political commentator in the capital Harare said that process was almost impossible now, given that Mugabe could dissolve parliament at any time in preparation for the launch of electoral campaigns. The commentator noted that the MDC itself had not even started its own campaigns and was sending out conflicting signals about whether it would participate in the elections.

“The ideal thing would have been to repeal all the repressive laws in the country to even the electoral playing field,” said the commentator. “But that is almost impossible from both a logistical point of view and from a political strategy. There simply is not enough time now for the negotiators to begin a process that will need to be debated by parliament and passed into law before March next year. Remember we are talking about an election only four months away.

“And while ZANU-PF is keen to secure a legitimate victory this time around, it will not throw away all the laws that give it advantage overnight.”

He noted that in Mugabe’s address to ZANU-PF supporters who marched last week in support of his candidacy in next year’s elections, the president referred to the “road to March” at least three times, a sign that he did not contemplate a postponement of the polls to allow for amendments.

However, said the commentator, Mugabe talked of a peaceful election, free of violence, so that he could demonstrate to his detractors that he was still popular.

“Short of an amendment to these [electoral] laws,” he said, “the MDC will have to make do with whatever comes its way. While a boycott of the elections may sound appealing, its impact on the nation would be devastating. It will deny Mugabe’s regime the legitimacy it desperately needs but the nation cannot afford another five years of this destructive stand-off with the international community.

“Yet on the other hand, that decision might be a ploy by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to look for a dignified exit because another electoral loss, no matter how flawed the process, will mark an end for him as a credible leader of his party.”

He said while it was good for the opposition to keep its options open, its obsession with electoral law reform was not helpful to its cause. The decisive factors concerning the outcome of the election were institutions such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the Command Centre, which he said were pro-establishment.

The Registrar-General’s office, which is in charge of the voters’ roll, was badly compromised, he noted, having been used in the past to manipulate the voters’ roll and electoral boundaries. It is headed by Tobaiwa Mudede, a staunch Mugabe loyalist. The MDC itself complained last week that the voters’ roll was “full of dead and ghost voters” and that it was flawed.

“The best that the MDC can demand at the talks is that it be involved at every stage of the election process,” he said. “They need to closely monitor the ballots; they need to have unhindered access to the polling stations and they need to be there when the counting is done,” said the analyst.

The analyst also noted that the electoral machinery needs to be completely “demilitarised” to gain credibility. He referred to the Command Centre, which announces results of elections, and which he said was manned by personnel from the army, the Central Intelligence Organisation and the police.

“It is here that the results will be decided if the MDC is not careful,” said the analyst. “They can have all the electoral laws repealed today but as long as the outcome can be manipulated at the point where the results are announced, all would have been in vain.”

One opposition MP said he hoped the chief negotiators, Tendai Biti and Welshman Ncube for the MDC and Legal Affairs Minister Patrick Chinamasa and Labour Minister Nicholas Goche for ZANU-PF, were not focusing too much on legal technicalities.

“I don’t know exactly what the thrust of the negotiations is,” said the MP, “but I hope they will come up with meaningful changes. For instance, even Posa in its current form only requires that we inform the police if we want to hold a rally. But its application by the police is as if we need their permission before we can hold a meeting. These are the substantive issues that need to be clarified: what is on paper and what the police..can do.”

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of the IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.


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