ZIMBABWE: Fear versus democracy

Saturday, June 7, 2008
Zimbabweans living in South Africa returned in droves earlier this year to vote; this time many are unlikely to make the trip for the second round runoff for the presidency on 27 June between President Robert Mugabe, leader of ZANU-PF, and Morgan Tsvangirai, of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), because they are resigned to a Mugabe "victory".

In elections on 29 March, the ZANU-PF party lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since independence from Britain in 1980, and Mugabe trailed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential vote. But Mugabe, an 84-year-old former guerrilla fighter, has insisted he will not leave State House, regardless of the outcome of the runoff.

Mugabe has repeatedly branded Tsvangirai and his MDC as agents of imperialism, buying their way to 48 percent of the presidential vote in March – just short of the 50 percent plus one that Tsvangirai needed for a first-round knockout.

A new splinter group of war veterans, the Revolutionary Council, with First Lady Grace Mugabe as its patron, has called for the June poll to be scrapped. The faction argues that elections cannot be held with the country under "sanctions" – a reference to the freeze on donor aid – and was ready to take up arms to "defend the revolution".

The statement followed comments last week by Chief-of-Staff Maj-Gen Martin Chedondo, who said the army was not apolitical, and ordered all soldiers intending to vote for the opposition to resign.

Emmanuel Hlabangana, director of Diaspora Dialogue, a Johannesburg-based pro-democracy organisation for Zimbabweans in exile, said the Zimbabwe government was furiously trying to undermine the MDC before the June poll.

"The undemocratic statements which have been made have only served to discourage some people from going back home to vote, because they feel that their vote will not count. The establishment wants to create a siege mentality among Zimbabweans to lose hope," he told IRIN.

"After losing in the first round of voting, ZANU-PF wants to make sure that the election will be so close that Mugabe will declare himself the winner, then arm twist Tsvangirai into a government of national unity with himself [Mugabe] as the leader," said Hlabangana.

Political violence and intimidation have also escalated: Tsvangirai was detained by the police twice this week; the diplomatic community has been harassed; on Thursday all aid organisations were ordered to stop their operations on grounds of "political activity" by some, and accused of supporting the MDC.

Raymond Majongwe, secretary-general of the militant Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ), which has a branch in South Africa, said thousands of his members had fled the country after they were they were accused of backing the MDC.

"In my interactions with our members, many have indicated that they are not prepared to go back home and vote. They say - based on statements issued by war veterans, the army and ruling party officials - it is not likely that if Mugabe loses, he will surrender power."

Fambai Ngirande, the advocacy and communications manager for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, a civil society umbrella body, told IRIN from the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, that even within the country many were too afraid to vote.

"The state-sponsored political violence was systematic and targeted. Those who were affected were known and perceived opposition supporters, election agents for the opposition in the last elections, and opinion leaders such as teachers and nurses. Because in our elections people can only vote where they are ordinarily resident, very few will be brave enough to go back to where they were displaced from in order to vote," Ngirande said.

Mugabe's chief election agent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, told IRIN that Mugabe was misunderstood when he said he would not relinquish power. "Nobody goes into an election thinking that they will lose, otherwise there would be no point in contesting. What the president meant is that he does not think he will lose and hand over power."

Asked to comment on statements from the military and war veterans that they would not recognise a Tsvangirai victory, Mnangagwa said they were speaking in their "private capacity".

"If he [Mugabe] loses the election, I will be the first to go to him as his chief election agent and say: 'Boss, we have lost. We brought democracy to Zimbabwe and we should defend it'. I will ask him if I should draft his resignation speech, or whether he would rather draft his own statement."