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Widespread Apathy Ahead of Elections

Many too preoccupied with getting by from one day to the next to feel excited about voting.
By Florence Mafa
There is little excitement and much despair among Zimbabwean people in the run-up to harmonised elections set for March 29.

The usual euphoria preceding presidential or parliamentary elections is almost absent as the so-called “make-or-break” polls approach.

The elections mark a critical moment in Zimbabwe’s deepening political and economic crisis, which has seen the former breadbasket of Africa become, in the words of Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, a “sinking titanic”.

The polls are being held at a time when the country’s economy is at its lowest ever ebb, with the world’s highest inflation rate of over 100,000 per cent, an unemployment rate much higher than 85 per cent, critical food and fuel shortages, and a collapsing infrastructure.

President Robert Mugabe, who turned 84 last month, has presided for the past nine years over the world’s fastest shrinking economy and achieved the world’s worst mortality rates.

In the last parliamentary polls in 2000 and presidential elections in 2002, ruling party ZANU-PF and Mugabe came close to their first ever losses since independence. So this year’s combined local government, parliamentary and presidential elections were predicted to be among the most exciting.

This time round, not only is Mugabe facing a stiff challenge from Morgan Tsvangirai from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, but his former ally Simba Makoni has also entered the race.

According to inside sources, Makoni has the backing of more than 90 per cent of the ruling party’s supreme council, the politburo. He is also a former finance minister, and Zimbabwe’s economic crisis is expected to be a crucial factor in influencing voters.

Local and international observers had expected to see the country gripped with election fever in the run up to the race, rather than the current malaise being displayed by both ordinary Zimbabweans and politicians.

Driving around different suburbs in Harare, one does not get the feeling that elections are three weeks away. There are few of the posters of presidential or parliamentary candidates that have been plastered everywhere ahead of past elections.

Instead, there is a distinct lack of excitement and even lack of hope among ordinary people.

Some say the enormity of another victory from incumbent president Robert Mugabe is weighing heavily on people’s minds, while others say Zimbabweans are more preoccupied with bread-and-butter issues, such as coping with food shortages, to worry about the elections.

In a normal political environment, these are the kinds of issues that would spur people on to participate in the country’s politics. However, in Zimbabwe, where intimidation, political violence and vote rigging are commonplace, the opposite is true.

Only once, in a referendum in February 2000, has Mugabe ever lost a popular election, and analysts predict he is not about to lose this one.

Many believe that that ZANU-PF will rig the vote. The president controls the entire electoral process, including the counting of the ballots - a fact which has plunged the population into apathy and despair.

Harare resident Amos Chigwida told IWPR that he had neither the energy nor zeal to follow the political campaigns and is more concerned about feeding his children.

“[The price of] food is going up every single day. Meat is now beyond the reach of the majority of people. Many people cannot afford cooking oil, margarine, soft drinks and beer. Imagine – even tomatoes and onions have become unaffordable. So have green vegetables, which were sustaining many families,” said Chigwida.

“So tell me, what is there to get excited about? I have too many things to worry about than to spend time following rallies or listening to political speeches.

“We have been told by analysts that Mugabe and ZANU-PF are going to win. So why waste my time, when they are so sure that Mugabe will win? I have lost hope and the more I read about these predictions the more I get depressed.”

Observers also report there has also been little of the routine violence which is common in Zimbabwe during pre-election periods.

“People are hungry. Why fight when you don’t even have mealie [maize] meal in your house and have not had bread, tea, milk or sugar in a long time?” asked Harare resident Munyaradzi Masango.

“People do not have the energy - many people are starving and living on one small meal a day.

“They have more serious things to worry about than to be used in fights which do not have a direct benefit to them or their families - they have learnt this from past experience.”

But not everyone is apathetic about the elections. Struggling single mother of three Christine Makumbe believes her vote will make a difference.

“I pray that Zimbabweans have registered and will go and vote. I don’t agree with those that have already given up - every vote counts and each of us can play our part in choosing which direction Zimbabwe should go,” she said.

“For me, hope is important and without it there is no reason to live.”

For Makumbe, the thought of another ZANU-PF victory gives her nightmares.

“I cannot imagine the day after ZANU-PF wins, or a week, a month or another five years of hell. Have people really put into perspective what it will mean for inflation, foreign currency rates, the health delivery system and the education system?” she asked.

Foreign currency dealer Willis Ncube is one of the few people who would like the economic crisis to continue. He does not worry about how the country can continue to sustain parallel foreign currency rates.

Ncube, who has never been formally employed, became what is referred to as a “runner” or middleman when the black market for foreign currency began to boom. Over time, he began trading his own cash and has since bought a car and is renting a house in a Harare suburb.

“Mudhara (the old man - a reference to Mugabe) must win. I can’t imagine going into formal employment. I am used to working my own hours and making a quick buck,” he said.

“It is better for me the way things are right now. I can’t imagine what I would do if things normalised.”

Florence Mafa is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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