It’s the same sad story in Zimbabwe, despite progress in governance elsewhere in Africa
‘We don’t have the money for these elections, and everyone knows it.’
Barack Obama’s praise of Africa’s democratic progress during his recent three-nation tour visit reflects the fact that governance has improved in many states across the continent during the past few years.
Southern Africa has for the most part been the continent’s standard-bearer for democracy, with free and fair elections recently held in Botswana and Zambia building on the advances already achieved by South Africa and Mauritius.
These success stories have helped to strengthen the Southern African Development Community (SADC), which is mandated to improve the region socio-economically and politically as well as in terms of its security.
However, the continuing political crises in Zimbabwe and Madagascar are threatening to undermine the progress already made. Indeed the current situation in Zimbabwe, which is holding a general election on July 31st, is a good example of how hazardous the road to good governance can sometimes be.
Civil society and opposition parties have warned that the coming contest between President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and its main rival, prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is in the process of being rigged by the former group.
The election is being held to end a shaky powersharing arrangement between the political parties that was masterminded by SADC in 2009.
That deal followed Zimbabwe’s disputed 2008 elections, which were marred by state-sponsored violence that left at least 200 MDC supporters dead and tens of thousands of ordinary people displaced.
The warnings coming out of Zimbabwe over the past six months are nothing new, as Mugabe and Zanu-PF have been accused of rigging every election they have participated in since 2000.
But this time the situation was meant to be very different, primarily because the road to a free and fair poll was to be policed by SADC, which even appointed South African president Jacob Zuma as its intermediary in the crisis.
Under the terms of the powersharing deal SADC mediated, the transitional government was to introduce a new constitution and a raft of electoral, security and media reforms designed to ensure that future elections would be legitimate.
But apart from a new constitution, accepted by the electorate during a referendum in March this year, few of the much needed reforms have materialised. This is primarily because Mugabe loyalists in key government positions have refused to implement them.
The two sides were deadlocked for months over the reforms issue, with Zanu-PF calling for early polls and the MDC looking for an October date so government would have time to implement the changes, both legally and practically.
The MDC then looked to SADC to try to break the impasse by pressuring Zanu-PF to meet its obligations, and it appeared that regional leaders were finally going to do so at a summit scheduled for mid-June.
However, in early June former journalist Jealousy Mawarie, who now runs an election monitoring group, won a case against Mugabe in the Zimbabwean constitutional court that forced him to hold national elections before July 31st.
The ruling gave Mugabe the legal excuse he needed to snub his regional peers. A subsequent application by opposition parties to the constitutional court to delay the poll was also dismissed.
Despite this, SADC stood up to Mugabe and ordered him to push back the election. Its communiqué also made other demands, including a call for the immediate deployment of election observers across Zimbabwe.
In response Mugabe threatened to pull out of the regional body and dismissed its envoy on the ground - President Zuma’s international relations adviser, Lindiwe Zulu - as an “idiotic woman”.
Although the level of violence that Zimbabweans experienced during the 2008 polls has not yet materialised, Zanu-PF is being accused of rigging the voters’ roll, a far more subtle approach to getting its way.
A report issued by the Harare-based Research & Advocacy Unit in early July has revealed major discrepancies bewtween the voters’ roll and census figures.
The organisation estimates that nearly two million young Zimbabwean adults - a demographic that traditionally votes against Mugabe -- have been disenfranchised. With only three weeks to go to the election date, the whole process is in turmoil.
Mugabe’s stance in relation to SADC has complicated the regional body’s role as guarantor of the Zimbabwean elections. And there are now serious question marks over how far the body will go to rein Mugabe in.
Tsvangirai has conceded that his efforts to get reforms introduced before the poll have failed, and he has entered the presidential race “with a heavy heart”.
At the party’s campaign launch last Sunday the MDC leader said he had read “the national mood” emanating from ordinary Zimbabweans. It was clear, he insisted, they wanted to end years of suffering in a political and economic crisis created by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party.
All things being equal, the MDC would be favorites to win this election, but at this point the advantage appears to be with Zanu-PF. Nevertheless, there will probably still be a number of twists and turns as the drama unfolds that could have a bearing on the final result.
Zanu-PF itself is said to be in disarray due to infighting linked to the party’s succession battle. Mugabe is 89 and this will probably be his last campaign. How that will affect party unity during the poll, which will be needed for it to triumph, remains to be seen.
Furthermore, it remains unclear how the polls will be paid for. Finance minister Tendai Biti said on Monday that the cash-strapped government still needed $85m to finance the election, which he described as “a nightmare”. “We don’t have money for these elections, and everyone knows it. It’s a horror movie except that you are not watching the movie, you are part of it,” Biti said.
Bill Corcoran reports from southern Africa for The Irish Times.