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A Test for Democracy in Zimbabwe

Gunjan Singh is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 28, 2008

    There will never ever be change in Zimbabwe. We shall never reverse the gains of the liberation struggle. Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.” – Robert Mugabe (2008).

    Presidential elections were held in Zimbabwe on March 29, 2008. For the first time in 28 years after independence, the rule of Mugabe was constitutionally challenged in these elections. The three candidates who contested this election were Robert Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu – PF), Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Simba Makoni an independent candidate. Zimbabwe’s Constitution holds that if the results fail to give a clear majority to any one candidate, a re-election will happen within three weeks. It has been almost three weeks since the election and results have still not been announced. Out of 210 seats, results released by the country's electoral commission give the Movement for Democratic Change 99 seats, compared to 97 for President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party. A breakaway faction of the MDC won 10 seats. Out of the total of 210 seats, 23 seats were called for a recount. On April 26, the Zimbabwe Election Commission declared the results on 18 of these seats. The recount also shows that the opposition is in a majority and that there has been no major change in the numbers.

    Presently, there is an ongoing tussle as to who has won the elections between Mugabe (Zanu-PF) and Tsvangirai (MDC), and it appears that this might lead to a constitutional crisis. The political situation in Zimbabwe has been steadily deteriorating for the past few years. Corruption is widespread and the economy is in recession. Mugabe has been the sole ruler of the country for the past 28 years since independence from the United Kingdom in 1980. One can thus say that democracy in Zimbabwe was Mugabe dictated and defined, and not a constitutional one.

    The country’s political problems are not limited to Presidential elections alone. There have been three other elections – for the House of Assembly, for the Senate and for local councils. Predictions are that ZANU-PF might have lost to MDC in these as well. In totality, it seems that though Mugabe might have failed to get a clear 51 per cent majority in the presidential polls, there are chances that he might ignore the results and take up the presidency with the support of the armed forces which have greatly benefited from the high level of corruption under Mugabe’s rule.

    For a few years after Independence Mugabe was respected for his policies, for the important role he had played in the independence struggle and also for racial reconciliation and development which brought education and health to millions who had been denied these privileges under colonial rule. The economy initially thrived on exports of food, minerals and tobacco. The problem began when Mugabe ordered the often violent take over of farms owned by white people and handing them over mainly to his relatives, friends and supporters who were least interested in farming. This completely ruined the agricultural economy. The situation today has much deteriorated further. A third of the population depends on imported food handouts. Another third has fled the country and almost 80 per cent of the remainder is unemployed. Life expectancy has reduced from 60 to 35 years, the lowest in the world. There is a massive shortage of food, electricity, medicine, water and fuel. The inflation rate is the highest in the world.

    When elections were announced in March 2008, the opposition had claimed that there can be no free and fair elections under the existing government and demanded a new constitution. It feared that there would be electoral malpractices. One issue that has come up is the printing of extra voting ballots and the charge that these were used to rig the results. The opposition has claimed that there has been a major discrepancy in the number of voters counted and the number of ballots printed. The role of the army in all this is also open to question and speculation is rife about the course it will adopt in the wake of the political stalemate. It is not yet clear whether it will accept the election results or it will go ahead and help Mugabe retain power.

    The media is no longer free and all newspapers and magazines are under government control. Most international media outfits are banned. The April 3 police raids on opposition party offices, foreign journalists and a democracy advocate has raised the spectre of a broader crackdown aimed at keeping the current leadership in power. The raids were described by Biti, the general secretary of the Movement for Democratic Change, as a “coup d’etat”. The MDC has gone to court to try and force the result. It claims that Tsvangirai has won and should be declared president.

    The European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States have all called on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to declare the results early to help restore the belief in democracy. The European Union wants Mugabe to step down so that the country can have a bright and stable future without him at the helm. The stress of unknown results is causing unnecessary anxiety among the people, and there are apprehensions that they might resort to violence thus further worsening an already bad situation.

    Zambia has called for an emergency meeting of Southern African leaders to discuss the situation in Zimbabwe. African countries are worried that if results are delayed any further the situation in Zimbabwe might take a violent turn, in a repeat of what happened in Kenya earlier. South African President Thabo Mbeki had been asked by the regional bloc to mediate between Mugabe and the opposition.

    But the MDC is of the view that Mbeki's "quiet diplomacy" has been a failure. It has also claimed that it will not participate in a run-off. It has claimed that 10 people have been killed in election-related violence and hundreds more have been injured. It also says that 3,000 families have been forced from their homes and more than 400 opposition supporters have been arrested. Tsvangirai met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and has urged the UN to take action to bring the situation in Zimbabwe under control. He has also appealed to the African Union to show greater concern towards the problem in Zimbabwe. For his part, Mugabe has upped the propaganda in the state-run media and has reappointed his cabinet, half of whom have reportedly lost their parliamentary seats.

    It is unlikely that the international community will intervene to save Zimbabwe from the unfolding crisis. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions against Mugabe’s government but to no avail. One possible ray of hope is an African initiative. There is a ray of hope in this regard, given the refusal of Southern African countries, under public pressure, to permit a Chinese ship carrying arms for landlocked Zimbabwe to dock and unload its cargo. It is time African countries took the initiative to resolve the political crisis in Zimbabwe and nudge that country towards a peaceful democratic transition.