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

Mugabe Could Benefit From Diaspora Vote

The MDC may regret pressing for exiles to participate in next year’s election.
By Joseph Sithole
Zimbabwean ruling party ZANU-PF may benefit if it gives into opposition demands to allow the country’s sizeable diaspora to vote in next year’s elections, warn analysts.



The right for all Zimbabweans in the diaspora to vote in next year’s joint parliamentary and presidential elections is among key demands put forward by Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, in ongoing talks with ZANU-PF.



The government has so far opposed extending the vote to an estimated 3.5 million Zimbabweans living abroad, arguing that it would give the MDC an unfair advantage as ZANU-PF senior officials cannot campaign in Europe or the United States following travel restrictions imposed on them in 2002 after a disputed election.



But analysts warn it could be to the authorities’ advantage to give ex-pats the vote, as the difficulties of verifying the identity of Zimbabweans scattered around the world would create the potential for vote-rigging.



The Zimbabean diaspora includes people of all social classes and political persuasions who have fled the country in the past seven years of political and economic turmoil which has come about as a result of President Robert Mugabe’s ruinous policies.



Millions of Zimbabweans in neighbouring South Africa have now formed lobby groups under the banner of the MDC, demanding the right to vote in the crucial parliamentary and presidential 2008 elections.



But few are prepared to return into the country before they know the outcome of the ballot, which is widely expected to be won by the ruling party using whatever means are at its disposal.



Mugabe, who has put himself forward as the sole candidate for ZANU-PF in the elections, is still to be endorsed by the party, but different groups such as the Women’s and Youth Leagues have already vowed to support his candidacy.



The MDC say that most Zimbabweans who have left the country in recent years have fled Mugabe’s repressive policies and the precipitous economic collapse.



This, it argues, would make them predisposed to vote for Mugabe’s opponent.



“They are angry with Mugabe whose incompetent and illegitimate government has ruined their lives,” said an MDC official in the capital of Harare.



“Mugabe is afraid that once such people are allowed to vote, he has no chance of staying a day longer in power. He will therefore resist this demand with his life.”



But analysts caution that MDC’s demand may hand ZANU-PF victory on a silver platter.



In the past, ZANU-PF has been criticised for allowing military personnel on international duty and embassy staff around the globe to vote - in a process which the opposition said lacked transparency.



Without any means of immediately verifying the residential addresses and authenticating the names of ordinary Zimbabweans registering and voting from different locations across the globe, analysts say extending the vote to the diaspora could be manna for the ruling party’s rigging machine.



“The real irony is that it is in fact ZANU-PF and the government who are resisting pressure to allow people in the diaspora to vote,” said a political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe.



“But very soon, they may discover it might, in fact, be to its advantage.”



The analyst explained that so-called ghost voters are normally eliminated by voting requirements, such as national IDs, proof of residence and citizenship.



“But if the MDC’s claims of vote-rigging by ZANU-PF over the years are to be taken seriously, it means even this rigorous screening process is not foolproof. What then would stop them taking advantage of voters whose addresses we don’t know?” he asked.



“The MDC would have to act with great circumspection in trying to leverage the diaspora vote. They may live to regret ever raising the point in the first place.”



Another Harare-based analyst said there was a danger that ZANU-PF “might make a show of resisting this plum offer and then strike when the enemy least expects.



“They can decide at the last minute to ‘make a huge concession’ for Zimbabweans in the diaspora to vote after they have played with the numbers - and the MDC will be the biggest loser.”



The analyst said a low turnout in the recently ended nationwide voter registration exercise may prompt the government to exploit the situation in order to gain more votes.



The registration process ended on August 17. Only an estimated 80,000 people, or about four average urban constituencies, were added to the voters’ roll, bringing the total number of registered voters countrywide to about 5.5 million.



There are also concerns that voter numbers will be low as a significant number of those on the voters’ roll have since left the country for various reasons, including further education and better employment opportunities.



“There is a longstanding dispute over legitimacy which has caused Zimbabwe’s isolation from the international community. That in part is also responsible for the country’s relentless economic slide,” said the analyst.



“If the diaspora vote can be counted on to boost numbers and give the [election] winner the appearance of legitimacy, ZANU-PF will grab the chance. In fact, ZANU-PF appears more adept at changing and adapting to changing circumstances than the MDC.”



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