Africa

Analysis: Zimbabwe’s elections, through Mugabe’s looking glass

By Simon Allison 13 June 2013

Zimbabwe has a way of turning things on their head. The latest news is no exception: Comrade Bob, the dictator’s dictator, wants elections, while the pro-democracy crowd is telling him to back off. If you’re confused, you should be, but fortunately SIMON ALLISON is on hand to explain that it all makes more sense than you think.

Damned if doesn’t, damned if he does. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe finds himself in the most unusual position of being criticized – pilloried, in fact, as being unconstitutional, undemocratic and tyrannical – simply because he wants to hold elections. Yes, you heard that right, as absurd as it sounds on the surface: in the pro-election corner is Mugabe and Zanu-PF; while arguing against the democratic expression of the people’s will are the main opposition parties and international civil society. Poor old Comrade Bob, he just can’t catch a break (at least that’s what Dali Tambo seems to think).

This uncomfortably paradoxical argument over elections has been simmering for some time, but came to a head on Thursday when Mugabe – reverting to that dictatorial style which has served him so well for so long – ran out of patience and issued a presidential decree stating that elections would be held on July 31.

In a letter he wrote to Morgan Tsvangirai, his main political opponent and Prime Minister in the soon-to-expire government of national unity, Mugabe explained his sudden haste, cloaking himself in the protection of laws and court orders (this is, incidentally, a popular tactic even in countries considered to be functional democracies; just look at how America’s immense spying program has been legalised through fig leaf of secret, unaccountable courts).

“Given the need to comply with the deadline for elections as imposed upon me by the Constitutional Court Judgment,” Mugabe wrote, “It became inexpedient to await the passage through Parliament of the Electoral Amendment Bill to align the Electoral Law with the new Constitution. Accordingly, I found it necessary to invoke the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act, Chapter 10:20 in order to comply with the Order given by the Constitutional Court.”

This court judgment to which Mugabe refers came in response to an application brought by a “private citizen”, who wanted to force Mugabe to set an election date before the term of the current Parliament expires (which it does on June 29). Who knows how private this citizen really was, but the court complied with his request, and told a delighted President that he must hold elections before the end of July.

Again, it’s not immediately obvious why this court order was welcomed with such alacrity by Mugabe, and immediately condemned by his detractors – surely, one would think, a Mugabe operating in near-complete executive control is a more dangerous prospect than a Mugabe that is at least constrained by the fig leaf of parliamentary accountability (there are, after all, a number of opposition MPs?

But this is Zimbabwe, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned in covering our northern neighbour it is that the obvious is almost never the solution.

Here’s the problem. Zimbabwe is not ready for an election. Regardless of what the electoral commission might say (“we will be ready”, commented chairperson Rita Makarau), the country is going to struggle to organize polls that comply with international standards in time. They haven’t even got a voters roll together yet, and it’s unclear whether the government has enough money to fund the election (the government previously asked South Africa to sponsor the vote). If rushed, the election will be a disorganized affair – and disorganization breeds corruption and electoral fraud, things that have blighted elections in Zimbabwe before, let’s not forget.

Then there are a few basic legal hurdles, foremost among them the complete confusion surrounding a proposed new electoral law – the one that Mugabe claims it is “inexpedient” to wait for. According to Tsvangirai, this new law was agreed in Cabinet on Tuesday, and it has ramifications for exactly who the people should be voting for and how they should do so; it introduces, for example, new concepts like proportional representation in the Senate and in the newly-introduced provincial council elections. And according to Zimbabwe’s new constitution, any upcoming elections need to be conducted under the new electoral law, not the old electoral law; so, as much as he would like to, Mugabe can’t really set an election date until it is in place, no matter what the court says.

But by far the biggest area of concern is the failure to reform Zimbabwe’s national security apparatus, who act to all intents and purposes like Zanu-PF’s private heavies. In the last scheduled election – the presidential run-off between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008 – the police and army were implicated in violence against Tsvangirai supporters which eventually forced the election to be called off. No one’s been held accountable for this, and there’s been little to no change in how the national security apparatus operates. There is nothing to suggest that they won’t derail yet another election in Mugabe’s favour.

“There is a real opportunity in Zimbabwe to build confidence in the integrity of electoral institutions and processes, a real chance to do this properly. Rushing into elections will fundamentally undermine those opportunities,” concludes the International Crisis Group’s Piers Pigou. “The ICG doesn’t believe that the conditions in Zimbabwe are appropriate for a free and fair election at this juncture, let alone a transparent, peaceful and credible election.”

While it’s hard to argue with all this, it’s worth noting that the opposition also has a selfish motive in avoiding an immediate election. Truth is, they’re in a bit of disarray. Fractured, bickering, and undermined by personal scandals (primarily Tsvangirai’s much-publicised love life), the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai is not so confident that they can win an election, even if it was free and fair.

As the Guardian’s David Smith explains: “The rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is seen by many as having lost momentum and the moral high ground after entering a power-sharing agreement…The MDC stands accused of the sins of incumbency, its leadership seduced by ministerial houses and luxury cars; the party has been forced to discipline some councillors for corruption. It has failed to heal a factional rift that could divide its support. Leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who serves as prime minister in the unity government, has been criticised for becoming too close to Mugabe and for an unseemly run of sex scandals. ‘I think he’s been a total disaster,’ said one senior MDC figure, who did not wish to be named.”

So, early elections are bad news for the troubled opposition, something Mugabe is well aware of, consummate politician that he is – hence his uncharacteristic rush to the ballot box. And, given Zanu-PF’s still-powerful grip on the state’s institutions, it will be a surprise if the opposition can prevent elections going ahead on their own.

They’ll need help, which can only come from one place – SADC, and specifically the South African mediation team headed by President Jacob Zuma. There’s a SADC meeting this weekend to discuss Zimbabwe, and they’ll have plenty to talk about. It was already delayed by a week by Mugabe, who presumably knew he was about to drop a bombshell.

But will SADC have the strength to stand up to Mugabe? So far, they have avoided confrontation wherever possible, favouring the ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach which so often looks the same as doing nothing at all. And the immediate reaction of Lindiwe Zulu, Zuma’s chief negotiator on Zimbabwe, hinted at more of the same: “SADC is concerned that there should be an election that is nowhere near what happened in 2008,” she told the Telegraph, without apportioning blame. “At the end of the day, there are three parties in the coalition and SADC wants to see those three parties being in agreement rather than unilateral decisions.”

Well, that’s nice. We’d prefer to see Zimbabwe get a real chance to choose its own government, and if it means that SADC has to take a stand that not all parties agree with (specifically, that Zanu-PF does not agree with) then that’s exactly what should happen. DM

Read more:

  • Robert Mugabe fast tracks Zimbabwe election law on the Telegraph

Photo: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe looks on during the annual conference of his ZANU-PF party in Gweru about 285 km (177 miles) west of the capital Harare, December 7, 2012. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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