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A tough job for Mbeki
Muna Ndulo
May 03, 2007

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold presidential and parliamentary general elections next year and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has delegated the task of ensuring they are free and fair to President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa.

Free, fair polls can be held only where there exists an environment that seeks to provide popular participation, promotes human rights, guarantees fundamental freedoms, ensures accountability of the government and freedom of the judiciary and press, and protects and respects political pluralism.

None of these conditions exist in Zimbabwe, nor are they likely to exist between now and next April, as there is an absence of decisive action to bring them about.

Contradictory statements from SADC do not inspire confidence in that organisation's efforts to resolve the crisis. There is a real risk that the regional efforts will end up promoting an electoral process that will legitimise the Mugabe government.

Yet there is an absolute need to ensure that the next election in Zimbabwe is not only free and fair but also seen to be free and fair if it is to be accepted by all political factions as well as by the outside world.

The circumstances under which the elections are to be held present enormous challenges. These include the lack of a democratic culture of political tolerance, political violence and high levels of intimidation and bias.

There are also huge logistical concerns. Previous elections were characterised by selective voter registration and the gerrymandering of electoral districts. The police and the army have proved themselves partial and are often used by the government to frustrate free political activity. They do not inspire confidence.

The problem is heightened by an institutional culture that tolerates a profound disrespect for human rights. This makes the police unsuitable to guard the polling stations and perform other election-related functions, such as transporting ballot papers, without supervision.

These factors create suspicion and doubt about the integrity of the process and make it essential that, if it is to have any chance of success, Mbeki's mission has to put in place credible structures that will tackle these challenges.

In the South African process in 1994, special structures -- such as the transitional executive council -- were established to ensure that the apartheid regime did not undermine the transition to democracy.

Also, the international community often monitors national elections. This is designed to ensure that elections are held in an atmosphere conducive to the holding of free and fair elections, thereby ensuring that the process advances democracy.

But such involvement can be effective only if it involves participation in the whole spectrum of the national election process. It has to include support of national election administrations, training of election officials, election supervision, election observation, election verification, provision of civilian police and technical assistance on election-related matters.

The final determination is made easier if the international observers ensure that each stage of the election is satisfactory and pronounce their judgement at each of the three key stages: the registration of voters, the campaign period and the voting and counting of votes.

Mbeki should not be interested only in what happens on the day of the elections. If he is to reduce the probability of rigging and enhance the integrity of the process, he should give considerable weight to the conditions on the ground leading up to the elections.

The big question that arises is how Mbeki is going to ensure that the right conditions are in place. What structure is SADC going to put in place to ensure that necessary conditions are implemented?

It appears that, for now, SADC's strategy is to make Mugabe reform and dismantle the autocratic and repressive system he has established. If that is indeed the strategy, SADC's initiative is bound to fail.

One of the lessons to be learnt from the recent disgraceful Nigerian elections is that undemocratic regimes cannot reform themselves. The Mugabe government will not democratise unless it is pushed.

The role played by the international community will thus be critical in the outcome of the mediation process. But, to be effective, it needs to be united. This will greatly increase the chance of a successful international intervention.

Only serious, determined and united efforts can move Zimbabwe out of its current quagmire.

*Muna Ndulo is professor of law at Cornell University Law School. He served as senior political adviser to the special representative of the secretary general in South Africa and head of the United Nations observer mission in South Africa, which oversaw South Africa's first democratic election. In 1999, he was the legal adviser to the United Nations mission to East Timor

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