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Free and fair election is mere fantasy

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I woke up to a text message this morning telling me that Morgan Tsvangirai, president of Zimbabwe’s opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, had been arrested. Checking the news as I write this, I see he’s been released.  Tsvangirai was taken by the police for questioning, in relation to a demonstration which the MDC has planned for today. The state has banned the protest. Police were already on alert in town at 7 this morning when I went through, and I watched the water cannons roll out in anticipation.

Zimbabwe’s “harmonised” Presidential, Parliamentary, Senate and Local Government elections are likely to be held in March this year, despite protests from opposition parties and civil society organisations that March is too soon for an election to be held that would truly be free and fair. Some have hoped that, with amendments to repressive legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and the Broadcasting Services Act, there is some potential for a genuinely democratic election – if only these amendments were given enough time to operate, so that people could operate in a more open social and political environment before the election.

But incidents like Tsvangirai’s arrest challenge this optimism. In theory, Zanu PF has an interest in making these elections seem more democratic – it would legitimate the victory that they’re certain to claim. So why not just let the MDC’s demonstration go ahead, as a sly show of good faith, and to muffle the opposition’s claim that the ruling party isn’t playing fair?

It doesn’t really matter whether the election is in March or June. The outcome has already been decided, and it won’t have anything to do with what people put on their ballot papers. The amendments to the above mentioned legislation are paltry. Journalists and media houses weren’t consulted in relation to the AIPPA amendments which affect their work directly. The amendments to POSA make public meetings sound marginally more possible. But as we’ve seen today, so much of law is in enforcement, not just legislation.

The machinery around this upcoming election makes it susceptible to rigging – there will reportedly be more than 16,000 polling stations. The opposition, and civil society organisations, will be looking to recruit monitors into every polling station to keep an eye on things. Even if they find enough volunteers, with shortages of everything from food to cash to transport to candles and stationery, how will they get them to their polling stations, and how will they ensure they’re looked after and can do their jobs?

And, of course, there are the far, far more subtle ways in which this election will be rigged. Those same obstacles which will make it even more difficult for the MDC to monitor the polling stations also make it hard to campaign. How do you get your flyers distributed if you can’t get cash for bus fare? And how do you hope to get participation at your rallies if people are too busy queuing for cash, bread, sugar, or mealie meal to come? You could try a spontaneous campaign at a shopping centre, to take advantage of the captive audience. But wait, that would also be in violation of POSA . . . .

One comment to “Free and fair election is mere fantasy”

  1. Comment by Kubatana.net speaks out from Zimbabwe » Blog Archive » MDC freedom march goes ahead, despite police harassment:

    [...] Despite a lengthy back and forth with the courts, and harassment by the police, the Movement for Democratic Change went ahead with their freedom march on January 23, 2008. [...]