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In search of free and fair
Welshman Ncube
May 03, 2007

Free and fair elections are the foundation of democratic governance, as they enable the people to exercise their sovereign right to constitute a government of their choice. Without free choice, elections become a charade, giving a veneer of legitimacy to a dictatorship.

At the heart of Zimbabwe's crisis is the fact that we are governed by a government that lacks legitimacy because it has denied people the right to elect freely a government of their choice.

In its bid to muddy the waters about the true nature of the crisis, the government has deployed a whole array of propaganda tricks appropriating pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist agendas.

Because the government is governing without the true consent of the people, it has resorted to coercion to defend its tenuous hold on power -- thereby creating a vicious cycle of unfree and unfair elections resulting in disputed and illegitimate outcomes.

There are numerous man-made obstacles that have prevented the people from freely exercising their democratic right to constitute a government of their choice. Thus there are also several key reforms that need to be implemented before the next elections -- if it is to be free and fair.

The obstacles include an undemocratic and seriously deficient Constitution, the systematic disenfranchisement of large sections of the nation (particularly those thought to be likely to vote for the opposition), the construction of numerous obstacles to voter registration designed to exclude the youth and the urban poor, unreliable and seriously flawed voters' rolls, and the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries. This is done by transferring more and more constituencies to provinces and rural areas believed to be Zanu-PF strongholds and away from areas thought to be supportive of the opposition.

There is also an absence of a genuinely independent electoral commission or impartiality, transparency and fairness in the whole electoral process. There is no transparent auditing of the electoral processes at key stages -- such as the printing and distribution of ballot papers -- and election agents, monitors and observers are deliberately excluded from polling stations. There are also breaches of protective provisions of the law, such as the refusal to announce and put up the written results of each polling station.

Other laws, such as the Public Order and Security Act, are in place to restrict the right to meet and freedom of assembly by granting the police powers to control, disallow and ban political meetings.

Media control laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act curtail freedom of speech and fair reporting, and have resulted in independent newspapers being shut down. A state monopoly of broadcasting has made Zimbabwe the only Southern African Development Community country without a single independent local radio or television station. This has denied the opposition access to large sections of the electorate, particularly in the rural areas where radio is the main means of communication.

Traditional leaders have also been manipulated by the state and have become little more than local level political commissars of the ruling party, not only campaigning for it but also ready to resort to an array of measures to coerce the people into supporting or voting for Zanu-PF.

Resettlement areas have been organised, not around local government structures but as open prisons in which membership of or support for the ruling party is regarded as a settlement licence, freedom of political choice is not tolerated and support for the opposition is punishable by banishment and deprivation of access to land. Food has also been used as an instrument of political control, manipulation and coercion, particularly in rural areas that are prone to food shortages.

Voter education has been manipulated with restrictions placed on alternative sources of information and people denied knowledge about their political rights with regard to election issues.

State resources have been abused for the purposes of advancing ruling party election campaigns, and the police, army, Central Intelligence Organisation and civil service have been used for ruling party political purposes.

Threats of violence and other forms of intimidation are used as instruments of coercion and the judiciary has been manipulated, resulting in the absence of a fair mechanism to resolve electoral disputes and complaints.

The integrity of the electoral process has been severely eroded by flawed elections, which have become a vehicle for consolidating dictatorship and bringing violence, intimidation, misery and general suffering to the people. Thus we now approach each election with considerable trepidation.

The national crisis cannot be resolved until a legitimate and democratically elected government is instituted. A free and fair election is possible only if and when the rules and conditions under which that election is held have been agreed to by the ruling and opposition parties, and the obstacles set out above are removed.

A new national Constitution, which broadly reflects national consensus, is top of the agenda. That Constitution should entrench the right of the people to elect its government unhindered and do away with the extensive powers of the president. It should also establish a genuinely independent electoral commission.

With a truly independent electoral process, questions about gerrymandering, the manipulation of voter rolls, the disenfranchisement of millions of people, exclusion of opposition election agents from polling stations, systematic breaches of the law to favour the ruling party and lack of transparency in the electoral process can all be easily resolved.

Contentious provisions in repressive legislation -- such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act -- need to be repelled.

All those who love Zimbabwe should help ensure that the next elections are not held until there is national consensus on the electoral regulatory framework, including the Constitution, so that the next government will be accepted as legitimate by all fair-minded and reasonable people.

*Welshman Ncube is secretary general of the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe

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