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Upcoming vote a rite of passage for SADC guidelines
Moyiga Nduru, Inter Press Service
March 23, 2005

Daniel Molokela is joining other exiled Zimbabwean activists in planning a mock election in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, ahead of the parliamentary poll in Zimbabwe on March 31. Hopes are that about 1,000 Zimbabweans will congregate in front of their country’s embassy to support the event. For those who do, the March 29 vote will probably be the closest they will get to casting ballots in their country’s election.

Millions of expatriate Zimbabweans have been denied the right to participate in the legislative poll (only embassy and other government officials based overseas will be allowed to vote abroad come Mar. 31). With economic hardship and political persecution having prompted upwards of three million Zimbabweans to leave their country, the Harare government reportedly fears that expatriates will support the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in the parliamentary election. (Zimbabwe’s total population is estimated at almost 13 million.)

But, says Molokela – a member of the ‘Crisis in Zimbabwe’ pressure group – this puts President Robert Mugabe’s administration in contravention of regional norms.

"This violates SADC (Southern African Development Community) principles and guidelines which call on states to ensure that all citizens have access to electoral processes and voting," he says, in reference to the ‘SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections’ that were agreed on in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius last year. Zimbabwe, as a member of SADC, has signed up to the electoral code.

"If Mozambique which has less resources than Zimbabwe can allow its diaspora to vote (in elections last year), why not us?" Molokela asks. As the March 31 poll draws closer, Molokela’s voice is just one of a number that have been raised to demand that the SADC guidelines be rigorously implemented. Many view the parliamentary election as a key test of the effectiveness of the code – and of SADC’s willingness to hold member states to account when they fail to hold free and fair polls.

For its part, the MDC alleges several violations of the SADC rules. Party supporters plan to stage a march on the Zimbabwean embassy on March 31 to hand a letter to Ambassador Simon Khaya Moyo in which these are listed. The MDC’s spokesman in South Africa, Nicholas Dube, says the contraventions include biased election coverage in the state media which – under the SADC code – are supposed to provide equal coverage to all parties.

As IPS has reported previously, the launching of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front’s (ZANU-PF) election campaign received four hours of live coverage by the state media. In contrast, the MDC’s campaign launch was given less than three minutes by state television during an evening news bulletin in early February. And, "After the news bulletin, Mugabe was granted a two-hour interview to explain his party’s manifesto. Two weeks later the MDC was given a 15-minute interview to explain its manifesto," Dube told IPS. "Ninety percent of the state airwaves is dominated by the ruling ZANU-PF. This runs against SADC standards."

To make matters worse, there are no private television or radio stations in Zimbabwe that could provide more equitable coverage of the campaign. The only privately-owned daily, the ‘Daily News’, was banned in 2003 under the country’s controversial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act – leaving a few independent weekly papers the task of giving Zimbabweans a balanced view of campaigning.

Sokwanele, a Zimbabwean pressure group, has been measuring the performance of the Mugabe regime against the SADC principles and guidelines since October 2004.
"Over this period a clear pattern has emerged of a steady movement by the regime not towards, but rather away from, compliance with the regional standards on democratic elections," it said in a March 7 editorial published in ‘Mauritius Watch’ – a regular survey provided by Sokwanele of Zimbabwe’s compliance with SADC electoral guidelines.

"The cumulative effect of their actions and omissions over very many months considered in conjunction with the flawed electoral laws and repressive security legislation now in place - and all within the context of the climate of massive fear that now pervades Zimbabwe - effectively renders any hope of a fair and free election on Mar. 31, an illusion," the group added.

On March 21, Human Rights Watch, a New York-based non-governmental organisation, also claimed that Zimbabwe had disregarded the regional election code. However, South African President Thabo Mbeki this month rejected suggestions that Zimbabwe was failing to heed SADC standards. Pretoria has adopted a policy of quiet diplomacy towards Harare, claiming that high-pitched accusations will do little to encourage change in Zimbabwe. Critics of the South African government say Zimbabwe has viewed the lack of overt criticism from Pretoria as a licence to continue with its behaviour of the past five years.

The last parliamentary poll, in 2000, and presidential elections in 2002 were marred by political violence and human rights violations that have, overwhelmingly, been laid at the door of government. Parallel to this violence, laws have been passed that restrict freedom of speech and assembly.

Perhaps to the ire of activists, the SADC election standards are not legally binding.
"SADC cannot enforce it (the polling code) by a way of imposing sanctions against an offending member state," said Khabele Matlosa of the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA) earlier this month. He was speaking at a conference entitled ‘Rethinking Zimbabwe’s Election: A Conflict Prevention Agenda’, organised by EISA.

The guidelines also require SADC members to ensure political tolerance ahead of elections and establish impartial electoral institutions – amongst other measures. While levels of political violence in Zimbabwe are acknowledged to be lower than they were prior to voting in 2000 and 2002, rights abuses are still widespread – and there are concerns about the neutrality of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

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