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The MDC's electoral boycott
Extracted from African Security Review 13(3), 2004
opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), announced
on 25 August 2004 that it would not contest the parliamentary elections
scheduled for March 2005. The MDC said it believed that the political
environment in which elections would be held would be inimical to a free
and fair poll, and added that it would reconsider its decision only after
a comprehensive reform of the political system.
The party cited legislation
such as the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Access to Information
and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA)—both of which circumscribe civil
liberties and freedom of expression— as major obstacles to participation.
It claimed that Zimbabwean law enforcement agencies, directed by the governing
Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front
used these statutes and other regulations to silence or exert pressure
on the political opposition and pro-democracy activists. The MDC alleged
that these laws, coupled with the rules relating to the conduct of elections,
were intended to undermine the opposition and tilt the political playing
field to the ruling party’s advantage.
The government has
responded to the MDC’s decision by claiming that the opposition was afraid
to test its popularity at the polls, fearing inevitable defeat. Regardless
of the actions of the MDC, it said, the parliamentary contest would proceed
on schedule. The MDC argues that participation under the current electoral
framework would be tantamount to endorsing an illegitimate process, open
to manipulation and vote rigging by the ruling party. It maintains that
the ruling party’s proposed technical reforms of the electoral laws only
partly address the minimum standards required to improve the transparency
and fairness of polling. This August, the government responded to calls
for comprehensive changes to the system by proposing a series of technical
reforms to the electoral laws. This may also have been an attempt to anticipate
the adoption of electoral guidelines by the 14-member Southern African
Development Community (SADC).
The reforms proposed
by the government of Zimbabwe included changes that would see voting limited
to a single day, the tabulation of election results at polling stations
rather than at central locations, and the establishment of an independent
electoral commission. Although these reforms go some way towards improving
conditions on the actual day of the poll, they fail to address the broader
political context in which elections are held in Zimbabwe. In fact, the
MDC had set out the minimum standards under which it would be prepared
to participate in elections in a party policy document entitled ‘Restore’.
David Coltart, MDC MP and shadow justice minister, assesses the shortcomings
of the government’s proposal as follows: "What the ruling party’s
proposal clearly demonstrates is that they view an election as an event
as opposed to a process."
At this year’s SADC
summit in Mauritius, the region’s leaders unanimously agreed to a protocol
establishing minimum standards for elections in the member states. The
summit chairperson, Mauritian Prime Minister Paul Berenger, said that
SADC sought to establish an environment in which all political parties
could campaign freely, without fear of the threat of violence or hindrance
in their campaigning and access to the media.
In every election
since independence, Zimbabwe’s ruling party has been accused of various
kinds of illicit electoral manipulation. Following the last general election
in 2000, the MDC lodged legal objections to the results in 37 constituencies,
claiming serious irregularities in the conduct of the polling. Four years
have passed, and the Zimbabwean judiciary has yet to pronounce on the
The presidential polls
of 2002 were also marred in controversy, as the MDC was supported by elements
of the international community in condemning the conduct of these elections.
The ruling party summarily dismissed these complaints, though this resulted
in Zimbabwe’s suspension and subsequent withdrawal from the Commonwealth
in December 2003.
Although the Zimbabwean
government has shown little interest in implementing reforms in line with
the new SADC protocol, many political observers have questioned the wisdom
of the MDC’s boycott. Commenting
in South Africa’s
weekly newspaper, Mail and Guardian, Iden Wetherell expressed the opinion
that although it was understandable that the MDC should wish to "draw
a line in the sand" the timing of this decision not to participate
in the election was flawed, and denied the opposition an opportunity to
"test the government’s sincerity against the SADC electoral principles
step by step". The point has also been made that other SADC members
could take offence at the MDC’s decision, which might harm the party’s
attempts to garner regional support.
MDC remains convinced that President Mugabe’s strategy is to stall the
implementation of any comprehensive reforms until the last few weeks before
the elections, in the hope that enough damage would have been done to
the opposition’s campaign to render it virtually defeated before the polls.
In the face of this, the options open to the MDC are few and far apart.
The expectation that SADC will somehow exert pressure on the Zimbabwean
government to implement reforms in line with the newly adopted protocol
on elections may, in view of past practice, be overly optimistic and even
unrealistic. Although South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki made it clear
that member states who fail to comply with the provisions of the protocol
could face suspension from the regional body, it remains to be seen whether
SADC (or for that matter any of Zimbabwe’s neighbours) will take a firm
stance against the ZANU-PF regime.
is a researcher in the African Security Analysis Programme at the Institute
of Security Studies (ISS)
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