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

The Right Sort of Observers

South Africa joins some less than democratic states invited to watch the election, as anyone who might be critical is struck off the list.
By IWPR Srdan

Zimbabwe’s president Robert Mugabe has devised a wide range of measures to rig the country’s sixth parliamentary election and to disguise the extent of the falsification.


Perhaps the most blatant and effective of these measures is the careful cherry-picking of foreign delegations permitted to observe the conduct of the election campaign and the count. Foreign Minister Stan Mudenge has invited observers only from countries that have either openly supported the ruling ZANU PF government or have maintained silence about the country’s prolonged political and human rights crisis.


Crucially, observer teams from the United States, the Commonwealth, Australia, Japan, the European Union, Britain and other European countries who were intensely critical of Zimbabwe’s last parliamentary election in 2000 and the subsequent 2002 presidential election have been denied entry this time round.


“They [Mugabe and ZANU PF] have left out everybody who gave them a negative report,” said John Makumbe, lecturer in political science at the University of Zimbabwe. “In essence it says the regime has something to hide, that it can’t stand close scrutiny.”


The observer teams that have received invitations come from pro-Mugabe African states such as South Africa, Tanzania and Namibia; other friendly countries such as China, Iran, Venezuela and Russia; and from the South African Development Community, SADC, the 14-member regional grouping which pronounced as free and fair the last two internationally criticised Zimbabwean polls.


Even the Atlanta-based Carter Centre, one of the world’s leading election monitoring organisations, which has observed elections on every continent, was told it was unwelcome when its monitors began arriving in Harare.


“Zimbabwe is a disgrace,” said former United States President Jimmy Carter, chairman of the centre. “Mugabe declared that the Carter Centre is a terrorist organisation and asked us to leave.”


A host of African regional civic organisations that have criticised past Zimbabwean polls as neither free nor fair have also been excluded. They include the autonomous SADC parliamentary delegation, made up of ordinary members of southern African parliaments, which issued a report on the 2002 presidential election that was so damning that the SADC and African Union secretariats sat on it for two years before it was released.


South Africa’s powerful trade union movement, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, Cosatu, has been refused permission to send a mission. Cosatu has expressed solidarity with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, which was one of the leading founding components of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, Zimbabwe’s main opposition party.


Justifying the ban on Cosatu, Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa said ZCTU leaders had been “a regular feature at British Labour Party annual conferences and have used the platform to call for international isolation of the country [Zimbabwe] and the illegal removal of the legitimate government.”


The ZCTU itself has been denied permission to place official observers at polling and vote counting stations.


South Africa’s main independent election body, the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa, which has been prominent in organising domestic elections and observing more than twenty overseas votes, was also refused permission for its 40 designated representatives to enter Zimbabwe.


The Harare-based Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, ZLHR, said the cherry-picking process will have a serious impact on the credibility of the ballot result. Other Zimbabwean non-government organisations and opposition parties have also criticised the way the government has hand-picked monitoring teams.


ZLHR executive director Arnold Tsunga said, “There is no diversity in the kind of observer teams invited by the government. The election will consequently lose all credibility because the observer missions are not truly representative of the international community as a whole.”


Zimbabwean human rights organisations and government opponents are particularly incensed with South African President Thabo Mbeki and his labour minister, Membathisi Mdladlana, who is leading the official South African observer mission, who have both endorsed the poll as free and fair before it has even happened.


"I have no reason to think that anybody in Zimbabwe will act in a way that will militate against the [Zimbabwe] elections being free and fair," Mbeki recently told reporters on the steps of the South African parliament.


His early verdict on the election was reinforced by Mdladlana, who said within 30 minutes of arriving in Zimbabwe that everything was “calm and smooth” and that the ballot would be conducted properly.


Mdladlana said too many people had drawn the conclusion that elections in Zimbabwe would not be free and fair. "Those people are a problem and a nuisance," he said. "But nobody attacks them. Some of us are fed up with their lies.”


Welshman Ncube, secretary general of the MDC, accused Mbeki and Mdladlana of adopting a partisan stance that is “an affront to the ideals that guided liberation struggles across Africa”.


Ncube continued, “The South Africans have let us down. History will judge them very harshly indeed. They are trying to sanitise the illegitimate regime of Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF. The South African government continues to go out of its way to act as the servant of ZANU PF repression against the people of Zimbabwe’s struggle for democracy and freedom.”


As a result of Mladlana’s remarks on his arrival in Zimbabwe, the MDC has declined to talk to or cooperate with the South African observer team.


“There are serious legitimacy and credibility issues surrounding the upcoming elections,” said Tsunga. “If the government really believed free and fair elections were about to be held, then it would have freely welcomed anyone interested to observe them. By barring so many observer teams, the government has shown that it has something to hide. The world will have no confidence in the observers that have been selected.”


The world’s two leading human rights organisations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have both issued damning reports saying the situation on the ground makes it impossible to hold a free and fair election. They said there has been massive intimidation and harassment of government opponents by the army, police and Mugabe’s personal youth militia ahead of the polls.


In addition, more than 50 journalists from states pronounced “unfriendly” by President Mugabe have been denied accreditation to report on the election campaign. Mugabe has accused the domestic independent media and foreign correspondents of “printing lies and stirring up unrest in the country”.


Some journalists, including a large team from the government-controlled South Africa Broadcasting Corporation, have been admitted, but they have been charged 600 US dollars per person for the privilege.


Repeated applications for accreditation made by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting have not even received a reply.


Dzikamayi Chidyausiku is a pseudonym used by a journalist in Zimbabwe.