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

Voter Apathy a Major Factor in Ballot

Even long-time Mugabe and ZANU PF loyalists are turning their back on the election campaign, as poverty and despair sweep Zimbabwe.
By IWPR Srdan

Widespread voter apathy mixed with a sense of despair and revulsion - especially among the rural and urban poor - will be a major factor in Zimbabwe’s looming parliamentary elections.


“Life has become unbearable,” 73-year-old Christine Rwanga, a card-carrying member of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU PF party, told IWPR.


“When we last went to vote [in parliamentary elections in 2000], we expected change, but nothing happened. So why should we go to vote again when we know that nothing will change for the better? Our leaders don’t want to let go.”


Rwanga, a barely literate widow who lives with her 16-year-old orphaned granddaughter in the Chiweshe communal tribal lands some 90 kilometres north of Harare, said she had lost faith in the party she has supported since independence in 1980 because it has failed to improve the lives of ordinary people.


“Our lives have become extremely difficult,” she said. “Yes, [the government] gives us seed and fertiliser, especially now at election time, but that really does nothing to improve our lives.”


The high cost of living – Zimbabwe’s official inflation rate hit 620 per cent last year – also causes problems for the population.


“We cannot get money to send our children and grandchildren to school,” said Rwanga. “Fees and uniforms are expensive and day-to-day basic needs such as groceries have become unaffordable.”


This old lady’s views are shared by many in Zimbabwe today. Thousands of Mugabe and ZANU PF loyalists do not intend to vote in the March 31 poll because they believe that the result is a foregone conclusion – victory for the president and his party.


“The rulers always win, so what is the point of voting?” asked Tamburai Garikai, a 53-year-old unemployed mother in Harare’s Chitungwiza township.


“In the old days, I was working at the family planning department and my family had food on the table. But then I was laid off after independence, and it’s a miracle how I and my family are surviving.”


Her neighbour Margie Chadzera earns enough from charity handouts to feed her family of five grandchildren – whose parents have all died from AIDS - once a day.


“Back then,” she said, referring to some time in the past, “money was strong. You could use it. Can we hope the elections will change anything? I think we can say that the same people will win.”


Apathy levels have increased dramatically since the last parliamentary elections in 2000, when the newly formed opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, won 57 of the 120 directly elected National Assembly seats. This galvanised Mugabe and the ZANU PF, who suddenly realised they could be toppled from power in a free and fair election.


Since then, they have introduced a series of oppressive laws and other restrictions that hobble opponents, who have also been cowed by widespread violence emanating from the ruling party and executed through the army, police and youth militia.


Nowhere is the apathy more acute than in areas where the annual summer rains have failed.


“This year we will surely starve to death,” said Daniel Munzara in the village of Tsuwa in the eastern province of Manicaland. As he watches his meagre maize crop wilt in a dried-out field, he told IWPR that the tragedy had been exacerbated by Mugabe’s decision to expel the international aid organisations which distributed emergency food aid in the past. The president said Zimbabwe could feed itself without foreign help.


In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, former ZANU PF local spokesman Sikhumbozo Ndiweni, who left the party to become an independent commentator, said, “I’m among those who are not voting this year.


“What is there to vote for? All the political parties that are participating are not ready for the polls and have little to offer voters.”


At the University of Zimbabwe in Harare, Brian Raftopoulos, professor of Development Studies, observed, “While Zimbabweans are deeply concerned about their eroding standards of living, they are - paradoxically - increasingly resigned to the dominance of the incumbent government.


“Zimbabweans are losing faith in democracy. Many prefer to remain outside of either of the major political parties, due to the belief that party competition leads to social conflict.”


At an interdenominational national prayer meeting held in Harare on February 13, to promote a peaceful election, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Manicaland, Patrick Mutume, asked, “Why do we allow those we give power to in turn use that power to suppress us?


“We are at fault because we put evil people into power. Why are we rewarding [them]?”


Lamenting that the country had fallen from being a beacon of hope at independence in 1980, to becoming cowed without the freedom, justice or peace that thousands died fighting for during the bitter Seventies war of liberation, Bishop Mutume added, “We thought that by finishing the struggle for independence we will get peace.


“Then why are we still praying for peace and justice?”


Marceline Ndoro is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.