HARARE, Zimbabwe — Why is Robert Mugabe in such a hurry to hold elections?
Virtually all observers say that free and fair elections are not possible under current conditions.
But that's the point: Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party are not interested in fair elections. And at 87 years, Mugabe does not have time on his side.
Can Zimbabwe's neighboring states help this country have valid elections that restore its democracy and return it to political stability and economic prosperity?
For years, the 15 regional states in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have spoken of the need to improve the situation in Zimbabwe, but for the most part, the group has backed Mugabe. Now there are signs that that regional powers are changing their tune.
South African President Jacob Zuma and other leaders are meeting in Johannesburg on Saturday to discuss Zimbabwe. The leaders are expected to read the riot act to Mugabe and to urge him to make the substantial reforms needed to have fair elections.
The SADC leaders have already stated that media freedom, constitutional reforms and national healing need to be addressed before an election is held. Mugabe is supposed to show progress in these areas before elections, according to the “Global Political Agreement,” which brought Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai together in an unweildy power-sharing government. SADC brokered the agreement following violence at the last elections in 2008.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the main opposition party, says more than 200 of its supporters were killed after Zimbabwe's failed 2008 presidential run-off, when Tsvangirai pulled out in protest at the violence, handing Mugabe a one-sided victory.
SADC then pressured Mugabe into accepting a unity government with Tsvangirai, which was meant to draft a new constitution to ensure political and human rights reforms before fresh elections.
The Government of National Unity that emerged in 2009 comprises Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC as well as a smaller MDC offshoot.
But the power-sharing government has not changed the way Mugabe operates. The constitution has not been drafted and Mugabe's ZANU-PF party still insists on elections for this year.
SADC should discourage fresh elections in Zimbabwe until all necessary conditions for holding of free and fair polls are in place, said Prega Ramsamy, former SADC executive secretary who still holds considerable influence in the body.
Ramsamy made these remarks in Harare at a seminar under the theme “Can SADC avert a possible bloody electoral process in Zimbabwe?”
“SADC should ensure that there are necessary conditions in place before the elections take place,” Ramsamy told the Zimbabwe Independent. “These conditions may take time, but it is far better to spend time in building a solid foundation rather than build hastily on an unreliable foundation.”
But Mugabe appears to be moving ahead and has unleashed the army and police against any sign of dissent.
Last week, police arrested dozens of MDC youths following the killing of a policeman in a Harare township. Commentators have warned that ZANU-PF will use the incident to point the finger at the MDC, which has been drawing attention to state-sponsored violence. Residents of Glen View township say the police are already hunting them down so they can no longer venture outside their homes. A curfew is in force.
“We challenge the police to treat Glen View as a constituency and not as part of Darfur or the Gaza Strip,” the local residents’ association said. Residents interviewed said they were now “living in hell.”
Ramsamy questioned the logic behind holding early elections.
“Why is there so much rush for elections when the roadmap for elections is not even ready and the budget for the electoral commission not yet fully secured,” Ramsamy asked?
There is a firm impression in Harare that Ramsamy's views are shared by other southern African leaders. Zuma and his advisers appear to be shifting their sympathies toward the MDC camp. This follows energetic diplomacy by Tsvangirai who has visited nearly every regional state to make the MDC’s case, particularly the complaints about state-inspired violence.
Ramsamy said he is convinced that the new leadership in SADC had opened a new chapter in handling issues within the bloc, particularly taking into account events in North Africa and the Middle East. SADC is no longer a collection of aging leaders who have known Mugabe, 87, for years. Most SADC leaders are now under 50 with presidents such as Ian Khama of Botswana openly sympathetic to Tsvangirai.
“It is obviously clear that SADC is no longer in the mood of solidarity at any cost,’” Ramsamy said. “The emergence of new leaders has changed the political architecture of the organization.”
Zimbabwean publisher and political scientist Ibbo Mandaza said that any elections held in a rush are likely to produce a contested result. This is exactly what the SADC mediation process set out to avoid.
“Elections in the present circumstances will lead to another government of national unity,” Mandaza said. He did not have to mention that virtually all observers agree that the government of national unity has failed.
A priority for any constitution-making process is to clean up Zimbabwe's roll of registered voters, which has given Mugabe ample opportunity for vote rigging in several elections. The voters’ roll is drawn up by Mugabe's staunch ally, Registrar-General Tobias Mudede and for more than 10 years he has resisted all efforts to reform it.
The shocking state of the voters' roll has already been exposed: About one-third of the people on the register are dead, according to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network.
Political analyst R.W. Johnson, a former Oxford professor, studied the roll of registered voters and highlighted some glaring anomalies. In one constituency there are 118 voters over the age of 100, the majority of them all born on the same day, Jan. 1, 1901. When one looks at the new register as a whole, there are no less than 16,828 voters all born on the same day, Jan. 1, 1901.
“Such a concentration of 110-year-olds,” Johnson observes, “with identical birthdays is no doubt a planetary record.”
“Even more remarkable though, no less than 1,101 of these are concentrated in Mugabe’s birthplace, Zvimba, which no doubt will help to guarantee a pleasing election result there.”
All told, Johnson said, the register includes 41,110 voters aged over 100. On the other end of the scale, there are also registered voters who are two and three years old.
Mugabe has not yet set the date for the polls, but he is evidently in a hurry to move ahead with an election before any more anomalies in the electoral system are brought to light.
The summit of SADC leaders in Johannesburg on Saturday will show if South Africa and Zimbabwe's other neighbors will countenance elections on Mugabe's terms or if they will insist on improved conditions.