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Voter Registration Ends With a Whimper

A campaign to register voters for next year’s election ended almost unmarked, with many people saying they were unaware of the three-month long process.
Zimbabwe’s joint presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for next year have generated much controversy. While the ballot has been flagged up as a watershed event for both the ruling party and the opposition, some analysts are warning that it could turn out to be a damp squib.

They argue that the elections, which will pit the ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe against the fractured opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, may not be as exciting as the interest they have generated locally and internationally.

Among the reasons cited for these gloomy predictions are voter apathy, lack of publicity, and the inability of millions of Zimbabweans outside the country to register for the ballot.

The nationwide voter registration process ended almost unnoticed on August 17. Many people who should have put their names down said they were wholly ignorant of the three-month long campaign launched in May. As well as the general lack of information, critics complained that the registration process was manipulated to exclude opposition supporters.

The joint elections have been tentatively set for March 2008, but fears of a low turnout have already prompted talk of a postponement to next June.

John Mlilo, from Mataga, 450 kilometres south of the capital Harare, was typical of rural residents who were caught unawares by the voter registration effort.

“It is unusual for people to be registered for elections this early. Perhaps there was something wrong,” he said. “Normally they register people at the local primary school but this time there was nothing. I doubt if anybody registered to vote in this ward because we would have heard about it.”

The mobile voter registration teams have two components – members of the government appointed Electoral Supervisory Commission, and staff from the Registrar General’s Office who issue birth certificates and national identification documents to those who do not have them, as this is a prerequisite for voting.

Mlilo said he had heard that “Mugabe people” were issuing IDs and birth certificates, but not that voters were being registered.

A political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe said many people in urban as well as rural areas may have missed the deadline because the registration campaign was poorly advertised and was overshadowed by more immediate political developments.

“The timing of the registration exercise was very poor,” said the political scientist, who did not want to be named. “Every day, people are being told about talks taking place in South Africa, while back home people are being quietly registered to vote. It’s just too packed and confusing,” he said.

One such headline news story is the ongoing mediation process between ZANU-PF and the MDC. In March, South African president Thabo Mbeki was mandated by the Southern African Development Community to try to bring the two sides to the negotiating table to seek a political settlement to Zimbabwe’s eight-year crisis, which has seen inflation soaring to over 4,500 percent, unemployment above 80 per cent and a mass exodus of economic refugees to neighbouring countries and beyond.

Then there is the price-cutting blitz launched by the government last month, which has led to widespread shortages and crippled public transport. Queues for scarce commodities such as the staple maize meal, sugar, salt, cooking oil and paraffin have become the order of the day in all urban centres.

Finally, prospective voters may have been distracted by the long holidays around Heroes’ Day, August 11.

The analyst said the ZANU-PF’s low-key approach to registering voters was cause for concern. This was true even in those rural areas where ZANU-PF can normally expect a clear majority.

“There is definitely something afoot,” he said. “The elections may be no more than symbolic. ZANU-PF is already manufacturing figures and names before the election dates are known to the rest of the nation,” he said.

He noted that only about 80,000 names had been added to the electoral roll, a tiny amount set against the estimated three million who are believed to have left Zimbabwe in search of work abroad. The figure of 80,000 was only twice the national average for a single constituency, he said.

A low turnout, especially among its supporters, would not be in the government’s interests, given a plan to elect more members to parliament than before. A controversial constitutional amendment being pushed by ZANU-PF would increase the number of seats in the lower house from 150 to 210 and from 66 to 84 in the upper chamber.

“What I don’t understand is why they are keen to increase the number of Senate [upper house] and constituency seats when all the evidence points to fewer voters next year,” he said.

There have been allegations that the voter registration campaign is being used to stop opposition supporters getting onto the electoral roll. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a non-government organisation that does voter education, has reported that traditional leaders in rural areas are excluding known supporters of opposition parties, for example denying them ID papers.

Fidelis Mhashu, an MDC member of parliament for Chitungwiza, 30 km southeast of Harare, claimed that some 65 residential properties in his constituency had been omitted from the document used as proof of residence. He warned that if this practice proved to be more widespread, it would prejudice the MDC in the polls.

The political scientist in Harare noted that the bitter acrimony between the MDC’s two rival factions had not helped focus the minds of potential opposition voters.

“Because of their own internal problems, the two factions were unable to educate their constituents on the need to register,” he said. “Many are further still not sure whether their party is going to participate in next year’s elections or not.”

Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of one of the MDC factions, recently warned that his party might not take part in the polls if the Mbeki-mediated talks in South Africa fail to extract sufficient concessions from the ruling party to ensure free and fair elections.

The schism has lost the MDC goodwill and credibility among its potential electorate since the 2000 general election, when it lost to the ZANU-PF only narrowly.

“We can argue about rigging and this and that but the fact remains that the MDC is never, and will never be, the same party we voted for in 2000,” said Abel Tsuro, a civil servant in Harare. “The party has squandered a lot of goodwill because of internal squabbles. Many people have lost hope that it can ever beat ZANU-PF. Most of them have been frustrated out of the polling booth.

“Add to this the estimated three million Zimbabweans reportedly living in the diaspora and it gives you a bleak picture of the MDC.”

Martin Chiriga, from the poor suburb of Kuwadzana, sells mobile phone airtime cards near a voter registration centre but had not bothered to put his own name down. He said he had voted for the opposition in the past, but was no longer interested in doing so.

“They [MDC] should first sort out their problems before they can count on my vote,” said Chiriga. “Why should I vote for them when they are already fighting for power they haven’t got? Is that going to feed my children?”

At the talks in South Africa, the MDC is holding out for reforms to election legislation, a new constitution, and extending the right to vote to Zimbabweans in the diaspora. Yet even if the opposition wins on all these points, it still might not be enough.

According to the political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, allowing expatriates to vote would at best lead to the MDC winning the presidential election but losing the parliamentary poll. This, he said, would create “a constitutional crisis”.

“Because of our constituency-based voting system, even if registered, voters outside Zimbabwe would need to return home to vote in their constituencies for their MPs,” he said. “I don’t know whether the MDC is able to bring back the over three million people who have left the country since 2000 - that is, if it is true that all these people still support the opposition.

“On the other hand, if they were allowed to vote from their present locations wherever they are, they can only vote for the president, which is not constituency-based. If Tsvangirai wins, that would create a serious constitutional crisis if his party loses the parliamentary election. Because of our first-past-the-post system, it is the party with the highest number of constituency seats which forms the government, not the individual. It would really be a messy affair.”

He stressed that this scenario was “very unlikely, given that few Zimbabweans would be ready to come back home before they are certain that the crisis is being tackled more holistically. Many have already adjusted to their new environments and are trying to carve out new careers for themselves and their families.”

He concluded, “Despite the hype, next year’s election is going to be a lacklustre affair, with perhaps the lowest voter turnout we have seen in many years.”

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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