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

Public Switches Off as Electioneering Begins

Preparations underway for parliamentary poll amid seemingly widespread voter scepticism and apathy.
By IWPR Srdan

Though a precise date for Zimbabwe's March 2005 parliamentary election has yet to be announced by the ruling ZANU PF party, electioneering has nevertheless begun in earnest as prospective candidates of the main political parties fight it out in primary elections


The two major contestants will be ZANU PF, (Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front) and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC. Several smaller parties will also contest the election, but following major internal fights at the ZANU PF primaries there will also be an unexpectedly high number of independent candidates.


There has been some speculation that the election might be postponed since many candidates say they need more than two months to prepare their campaigns. But analysts say a postponement is highly unlikely: they say the delay in announcing a date is a tactic to minimise political violence that has marred previous elections.


The registrar general says there are 5,658,637 registered voters in a population of 11.5 million. [Three million Zimbabwean citizens have either fled or emigrated into exile, mainly in South Africa and the United Kingdom, as a result of economic collapse and political repression. The government has denied them the right to vote, which will inflict enormous damage on opposition candidates].


The right to inspect voters' rolls began on January 17 and ends on January 30, but opposition parties have complained that near-insuperable obstacles have been raised.


The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Bill, establishing a commission to run all elections and referendums, was passed by the national assembly in December. The commission is nominally independent, but is in fact wholly answerable to the president because he appoints all six of its members.


With the election less than two months away, the commission has yet to secure offices or appoint support staff.


Rashweat Mukundu, acting director of the Zimbabwe branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, an organisation promoting freedom and independence of the media, said the majority of urban voters are sceptical that the election will bring any immediate change.


"Apathy has set in because the voters don't see anything changing," he told IWPR. "The ruling party has not changed the electoral playing field and as of now there is no evidence there will be fair play."


University of Zimbabwe lecturer Dr Heneri Dzinotyiweyi, chairman of the Zimbabwe Integrated Programme, an independent development organisation, concurred. "The apathy that has set in will play in favour of the ruling party," he said. "Nothing has changed in the rural areas, so ZANU PF is likely to maintain its stranglehold on that constituency. Urban voters, most of whom continue to support the opposition, see nothing changing."


The passage last November of the repressive Zimbabwe NGO Bill, which criminalises leaders of local non-government organisations, foundations and charities if they accept foreign funding for work on human rights and transparent governance, has further restricted the scope for democratic activity.


“This means that state machinery controlled by ZANU PF will be the sole agent of voter education. It cannot be expected to be impartial,” said a senior official of the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, ZESN, a coalition of NGOs formed to promote democracy and good governance.


The government has been busily telling people through the state media, in advance of the election, that an economic turnaround has begun after years of decline. “Some people might be fooled by this government propaganda,” a banker, who requested anonymity, told IWPR. “But the business sector is aware that there is no such turnaround. Zimbabwe’s is an agricultural-based economy and, on its own admission, the ruling party has said only a third of arable land is under crops: so how can anyone talk of a turnaround?”


THE RULING PARTY


Under a unity accord signed in 1987, ZANU PF was formed from the merger of the two liberation movements that had fought the war for independence against white minority rule in the 1970s.


The two parties were ZANU (the Zimbabwe African National Union) and ZAPU (the Zimbabwe African People’s Union). ZANU was mainly supported by the majority Shona tribal group from northern and eastern Zimbabwe. ZAPU was primarily backed by members of the minority Ndebele tribe of western Zimbabwe.


Both liberation movements operated mainly in rural areas, which explains why to this day the ZANU PF combined party has its main support base in rural areas. ZANU PF is also dominated at the top by Shonas.


One of the clauses of the 1987 unity accord required the merged party to legislate for a one-party Marxist-Leninist state. But in the 1990s an increasingly confident civil society began to clamour for a new constitution that would help loosen ZANU PF’s hold on de facto absolute power. This was happening at a time when democratic movements undermined and toppled dictatorships in neighbouring Malawi and Zambia.


As the call for a new constitution gained momentum towards the end of the 1990s, ZANU PF succumbed to the growing demand for greater democratic freedoms and established a constitutional commission to write a new constitution. Although commission members consulted widely around the country, it became clear that the wishes of the people for real reform were not going to be respected. Critics said the resultant draft constitution was constructed in such a way that it would entrench the ruling party further in power.


It was put to a referendum in February 2000 and was rejected by the electorate. That triggered a major crisis, which has now gone on for five years. It was the first time since independence in 1980 that ZANU PF and its leader, President Robert Mugabe, had been defeated in a national poll. Mugabe, angry and troubled by the people’s rebuff, reacted swiftly to the defeat. In a populist move, he ordered veterans of the 1970s war to begin invading commercial farms, the backbone of the economy, to punish white farmers who had publicly campaigned for the rejection of the draft constitution. Several white farmers were murdered during the farm invasions.


Many tens of thousands of landless peasants were resettled on the farms, but they in turn were driven off by army and police forces so that in the end the main beneficiaries of the land reform programme were top ruling party officials, including relatives of the president. The result was a near-total collapse in agricultural production and only now is the government beginning to try to rationalise the chaos and anarchy of the reforms.


The parliamentary election of 2000 reflected the declining popularity of ZANU PF, which won only a narrow majority – 62 of the contested seats, with 57 going to the newly emerging opposition party, the MDC, and one to an independent. However, the existing constitution permitted the president to nominate an additional 30 MPs. All 30 nominated by Mugabe were ZANU PF supporters, giving the ruling party 93 seats in the new national assembly. Since then ZANU PF has gained another four seats at by-elections following the deaths of opposition MPs, so that the ruling party now has the support of 97 MPs in the 150-member assembly.


Following the 2000 election, Zimbabwe, under ZANU PF, has acquired pariah status in the international community. Many western organisations that observed the 2000 election, such as Transparency International and the European Union, declared that the election had been rigged and the opposition intimidated with state violence. The Commonwealth, grouping member countries of the former British Empire, also condemned the poll, which resulted in Mugabe pulling Zimbabwe out of the organisation.


There has been a lot of infighting in the ruling party recently, as factions position themselves for a possible retirement of 81-year-old Mugabe. Six provincial party chairmen and a minister were suspended from the party in December after refusing to accept the president’s choice of a woman as his new vice president. At the party’s fourth congress, held later that month, Joyce Mujuru became Zimbabwe’s first female deputy leader, seen as a strategy by Mugabe both to lure the female vote in the March election and to crush over-ambitious plotters for the succession.


THE MAIN OPPOSITION


The MDC was launched on September 11, 1999 as Zimbabwe’s once vibrant economy went into steep decline and inflation took off. At birth it was mainly labour-based, having been formed by the powerful Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU. Morgan Tsvangirai, the president of the MDC, was the ZCTU secretary-general while his deputy in the party was Gibson Sibanda, the ZCTU president.


Several civic organisations also played an important part in the formation of the MDC. The National Constitutional Assembly, which led the campaign for a new democratic constitution, was the most important of these: its secretary-general, Welshman Ncube, became the MDC’s secretary-general. The MDC also had considerable support among the urban unemployed and low-wage black workers, as well as wealthy white commercial farmers and industrialists.


The MDC surprised the nation, and greatly shocked Mugabe, when it successfully campaigned for the rejection of a flawed draft constitution promoted by the ruling ZANU PF party in a February 2000 referendum. In the general election that followed in April of the same year, the MDC won 57 of the 120 contested national assembly seats - by far the best opposition showing in the country’s history. It automatically became the official opposition, barely a year after its formation.


Tsvangirai failed to win a seat. His deputy, Sibanda, did and became leader of the parliamentary opposition. Tsvangirai narrowly lost a presidential election two years later to the incumbent Mugabe, a poll that was again accompanied by violence and criticised as having been widely rigged.


The MDC has lost four by-elections over the past five years and its leader was brought before the courts to answer two treason changes carrying possible death penalties. In the first, Tsvangirai, who was a plant foreman in a nickel mine for ten years before he began to climb the trade union ladder, was alleged to have hired a Canadian company to assassinate Mugabe. In the second, it was alleged that he had called for the violent overthrow of Mugabe. He has since been acquitted of the first charge and the second will be heard in the courts soon.


The MDC has still to decide whether it will contest the election, arguing that the electoral laws are unfairly skewed in favour of the ruling party. It also alleges that


ZANU PF has not complied with guidelines on holding free and fair elections agreed by heads of state of the Southern African Development Community at a summit in Mauritius last year.


The MDC has strong support in urban centres where labour forms the bulk of its membership. It has failed to penetrate effectively rural areas in Mashonaland where much of the 1970s liberation war was fought. But in Matabeleland, where as many as 20,000 people were slaughtered in a crackdown by the army’s North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, the MDC has extensive support in both the towns and countryside.


The MDC recently went on a diplomatic offensive in African and European countries. It said the purpose of the visits was to persuade the countries to put pressure on Mugabe to implement reforms that would level the electoral playing field. The MDC, in turn, found most countries applying pressure on the party to contest the March poll regardless of the obstacles raised by the government.