Understanding Zimbabwe's Elections
March 28, 2008
Zimbabwe will hold elections for the house, senate, president, and local governments on March 29, 2008. The economy is at its all-time worst: 100,500% hyperinflation, basic food shortages, collapsing infrastructure and public services, and a drop in economic growth of over 30% since 2000. After twenty-eight years in power, President Mugabe and the ruling ZANU PF party face mounting opposition from within the party and from both the majority and minority factions of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Can President Mugabe prevail in the race for the presidency, the most powerful office, given the extent of opposition to his continued rule? Is it possible for Morgan Tsvangirai, who heads the MDC majority faction, to win this contest, heralding a major course change for Zimbabwe? Or will Simba Makoni, a reluctant independent candidate who still claims his commitment to ZANU PF, succeed in removing Mugabe as president of ZANU PF and the country?
President Mugabe announced the date for the harmonized elections on January 25, 2008. The announcement meant that the nine-month effort of South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki to mediate between ZANU PF and the two MDC factions (who negotiated as a team) had ended in failure. Mbeki had been mediating under a mandate from the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), which is supposed to promote regional cooperation and security. The objective of the talks was to establish the legal and political environment for free and fair elections, and the MDC was the main loser in their collapse. In September 2007, the MDC factions had voted in parliament to support constitutional amendment (No. 18), which provided for harmonized elections, and also for largely cosmetic changes in laws, such as the Electoral Act and the Public Order and Security Act, that affect the electoral environment. (The amendment also provided for a substantial increase in house and senate seats.) In return, the MDC factions were apparently promised by Mbeki that a new constitution, which the two parties had evidently agreed upon in the talks, would be introduced before the election. Mugabe rejected this deal.
President Mugabe was chosen as ZANU PF’s candidate in the presidential election, but his refusal to permit leadership change after 28 years in power had stoked dissension in the ruling party. Mugabe had promised he would not stand for re-election after his 6-year term expired in March 2008. However, at the party conference in December 2006, he tried to extend his presidential term to 2010, when the next parliamentary elections were scheduled. The two major ZANU PF factions vying to succeed Mugabe as party president – one led by Emmerson Munangagwa (Rural Housing Minister) and the other organized around the reputed kingmaker Retired General Solomon Mujuru – united to oppose the proposal and Mugabe dropped it. His next maneuver was to propose bringing forward the parliamentary election to 2008, hoping to make ZANU PF parliamentary candidates hitch their fortunes to his presidential campaign. This seemed to work when the Munangagwa faction decided to throw its support to Mugabe as the party’s presidential candidate, although the Mujuru faction continued to oppose Mugabe’s nomination.
The campaign theme of Mugabe and ZANU PF’s is ‘defending the land and sovereignty’. Mugabe campaigns as if Britain is his electoral opponent because, he insists, it seeks to re-colonize Zimbabwe. He blames the economic meltdown of his country on the west’s economic sanctions, which he alleges were imposed in retaliation for the ruling party’s compulsory confiscation of mostly white-owned land. (In reality, the travel bans and financial sanctions are targeted at the ZANU PF elite in response to violations of democratic principles and human rights.) At rallies, Mugabe also blames local business for hiking prices to turn voters away from the party. Mugabe and the party-controlled state media demonize Mugabe’s opponents as western stooges, sell-outs, and reactionaries. On February 21, 2008, his eighty-fourth birthday, Mugabe told his state television audience that Makoni was like a “prostitute”, although “[a] prostitute could have done better than Makoni, because she has clients.” ZANU PF has denigrated every opposition party and leader since 1980 as “foreign” and lacking legitimacy.
ZANU PF’s electoral strategy is remarkably similar to its conduct in previous elections in other respects as well. The current relatively peaceful electoral environment was preceded by intense repression against the opposition MDC (chiefly the Tsvangirai faction) and civil society activists. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum recorded more human rights violations in 2007 than in any other year since it began data collection in 2001. The Forum identifies the chief perpetrators as the police, the military, the ruling party’s youth militia, and the war veterans, while the primary victims are opposition leaders and members. This record number of human rights violations occurred even as President Thabo Mbeki implemented his SADC mandate to mediate between ZANU PF and the two MDC factions. Not once did President Mbeki demand that ZANU PF end its repression as a condition for his mediation.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which has acquired new functions as a result of the constitutional amendment and the Electoral Amendment Act, remains composed of appointees of President Mugabe. The MDC and civil society organizations accuse it of performing its functions in a partisan manner and of lacking administrative capacity. The opposition alleges that the ZEC has failed to provide the necessary voter education, remove fictitious names and the names of the dead from the voters’ roll, or provide electronic copies of the voters’ roll to those who wish to purchase it. Moreover, according to critics, ZED has not identified a sufficient number of polling stations in urban areas which are MDC strongholds, or ensured that postal balloting for army and police occurs in the presence of MDC polling agents and does not include multiple voting. Nor has it ensured fair and balanced coverage of all parties and candidates in the state media. These allegations have been made against the ZEC and its predecessor organization in previous elections. Studio 7 Radio reported on March 20 that the votes will be counted at a command center rather than at the polling stations in each ward and that President Mugabe had used his statutory powers to make this law. Vote counting at a command center was done in 2002 in violation of the Electoral Act, and was believed to be the arena in which widespread vote rigging took place. With just days to go before the vote, the opposition is alleging that the government has printed thousands of excess ballot papers and is expressing concern over how they might be put to use.
The government has refused to invite foreign observers or to accredit foreign journalists who might criticize the conduct of the elections. As in the 2005 elections, the European Union, the UK, the United States, and the SADC Parliamentary Forum are among the critics of Zimbabwe’s electoral process who will not be permitted to observe the 2008 election. Most foreign journalists have been prohibited from reporting in Zimbabwe since just before the 2002 presidential elections. The local media are dominated by the party-controlled state television and state newspaper dailies.
The service chiefs – the Police Commissioner General Augustine Chihuri, Prisons Services Commissioner, Retired Major General Paradzayi Zimondi, and Defence Forces Commander, Constantine Chiwenga – all made statements only weeks in advance of the elections that amounted to intimidating voters to vote for the President. Chiwenga implied that the army would not serve under either Makoni or Tsvangirai, using almost identical language to his predecessor General Vitalis Zvinavashe before the 2002 presidential election.
Finally, the government has, as before, provided patronage to lure voters: food aid for rural voters, perks for chiefs and headmen who deliver the rural vote, salary hikes ahead of the elections to the army and police, promises of increases to civil servants and teachers, and pension increases for war veterans. Elite loyalists can look forward to the implementation of the new law requiring foreign companies to have at least 51% indigenous shareholders.
Who are Mugabe’s presidential opponents, and what are their prospects for winning against ZANU PF’s tried and tested strategies for electoral success?
Simba Makoni announced that he would run for president on February 5, 2008. He is running as an independent only because he was expelled from ZANU PF once he declared his candidacy. He was a ZANU representative in Europe during the war against white minority rule, a cabinet minister after independence in 1980, then executive secretary for SADC, and finally, Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister from 2000-2002. Makoni resigned from this post in opposition to Mugabe’s economic policies, but remained on the politburo until his recent expulsion. He is from Manicaland in the east, but has support in Matabeleland in the south and west, notably from ZANU PF politburo member Dumiso Dabengwa, military intelligence chief in the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) during the liberation war. Retired generals Mujuru and Zvinavashe and other high ranking ZANU PF politburo members are reported to back Makoni, but have yet to come out publicly in his support. The west has long seen Makoni as a desirable alternative to Mugabe. Makoni and his supporters are not anti-ZANU PF. Rather, they want to see leadership change within the ruling party. President Mbeki has also favored “leadership renewal” in the party.
Makoni has never held an elected position. He says he will win 70% of the vote and will form a national unity government composed of members of parliament drawn from all parties and independents. There are an unprecedented number of independents in the parliamentary elections because of the split in ZANU PF. Makoni’s campaign slogan is “a new dawn rising.” He advocates western financial assistance to turn the economy around. He supports agrarian reform, including the enforcement of ZANU PF’s stated policy of one person one farm (many ZANU PF elites received multiple farms in the post-2000 land program) and the productive use of land.
Morgan Tsvangirai has never won a seat in parliament, but his MDC party won more seats against ZANU PF in the 2000 parliamentary election than any other opposition party in the past. He was only narrowly defeated in the 2002 presidential election, which was widely condemned by critics as rigged. The MDC split in November 2005, with the minority faction accusing Tsvangirai of a lack of accountability and failure to deal with intra-party violence. Tsvangirai’s faction is further divided by fighting over who should stand for parliamentary seats and divisions over his removal of Lucy Matibenga, leader of the Women’s League, from her party post. The minority faction will field its own parliamentary candidates, but its leader Arthur Mutambara supports Makoni as president.
There is speculation that the three-way presidential race will deny any candidate an absolute majority and that a run-off will be necessary. Makoni and Tsvangirai, it is said, could unite in a run-off to oust President Mugabe. It seems, however, as if the machinery is in place to ensure an outright victory for Mugabe, notwithstanding the serious discontent in the lower ranks of the police and army and broad economic discontent.
Some commentators predict that the MDC and the independents will win a large enough number of seats in the parliamentary election to either impeach Mugabe, or should he die in office, to elect his successor as provided for in constitutional amendment No.18. While the impeachment scenario seems far-fetched, given the extraordinary presidential powers which Mugabe wields, the results in these elections will nonetheless be fascinating and certainly consequential for Zimbabwe’s future, even if they are not of a regime-changing nature.
Norma Kriger is a consultant specializing in Zimbabwe. She is author of Guerrilla Veterans in Post-war Zimbabwe: Symbolic and Violent Politics, 1980-1987 (Cambridge, 2003).
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