Opinion: Violence looms as Zimbabwe elections approach

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe is facing elections next year which could see a repeat of the violence that marred the 2008 poll between President Robert Mugabe and the opposition party leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Mugabe, 86, is pressing for fresh elections despite evidence that he will be rejected in any contest that is remotely free and fair. But he has the military, police and state apparatus in his corner.

Tsvangirai, 58, who has been on the receiving end of Mugabe’s coercive measures — he was brutally assaulted by police in 2007 — is pinning his hopes on the African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) playing a supervisory role that will deter electoral manipulation and violence.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai are currently locked in a SADC-sponsored government of national unity which has proved shaky and unpopular with both sides. South African President Jacob Zuma is preventing it from total collapse.

Tsvangirai as prime minister has continuously battled with the stubborn and intransigent Mugabe  who lost the popular vote in the 2008 poll but who managed to squeak a win in a runoff election. Not surprisingly Mugabe refuses to concede power. Despite institutional reforms to the voting system and the prospect of a new constitution, change has been slow and shallow. The police continue to arrest civic activists, the latest victims being members of an American medical team who were arrested for working to assist the country’s AIDS victims without a licence.

Mugabe doesn’t hesitate to excoriate his opponents and uses a raft of repressive laws to jail them when they respond.

Two MPs are now facing charges of “insulting the president” for denouncing Mugabe at rallies for Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Tsvangirai's party. A 23-year-old man in the country’s eastern districts was recently sentenced to one year in jail with hard labor for asking two teenagers why they were wearing T-shirts bearing the image of Mugabe that he described as “an old man with wrinkles.”

Tsvangirai was reported as having told his party’s supporters that at their last meeting “Mugabe said the prevailing peace in the country was ideal for us to go for an election.”

In fact cases of violence and intimidation persist to the extent that the constitutional outreach program has had to suspend hearings in some parts of the country.

Tsvangirai told his supporters that: “We are going for an election as SADC and the AU have said an election is the only way to close this chapter.”

The third party involved in the government of national unity, the smaller MDC formation headed by Arthur Mutambara, has denounced the agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai as “evil.”

The smallest party said it was shocking that the two main parties could have concluded a pact of this sort.

“It is shocking to note,” the party’s spokesman Nhlanhla Dube said, “that the two believe that the elections issue is between them alone yet there are other players and factors that need to be considered.”

He said the move was in complete contempt of the 2008 political agreement which laid down the need for consultation between the party leaders on political decisions.

Progress has been painfully slow. The Human Rights Commission set up between the parties has danced around the issue of rogue security officers who have a known record of violence. The public media remains captive to a coterie around Mugabe that is in denial about his 2008 defeat. And Mugabe continues to make key appointments such as judges without consulting anyone.

He gave the judge who supervised the 2008 election a medal.

Invasions and seizures of white-owned farms persist threatening food production while Zimbabwe has refused to adhere to rulings from the SADC tribunal that has branded the farm confiscations as “illegal and racist.”

Tsvangirai clearly believes time is on his side. Mugabe gave a rare televised interview to Reuters press agency last week. The interview was designed by Mugabe’s handlers to show a fighting-fit leader. In fact it did the opposite. He appeared slumped in his chair and his speech was slurred. While heaping scorn on Britain and the United States, he didn’t offer a single new policy to get the country out of the hole he has dug for it.

Going for elections is more a gamble for Mugabe than Tsvangirai. A recent survey by an academic research body on voting intentions has concluded that 32 percent would vote for Tsvangirai’s MDC while only 18 percent would back Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.

Significantly, given previous violence, a large bloc of voters declined to reveal how they would vote. Tsvangirai has the support of younger voters in the country’s teeming cities. In 2008 he won 47,9 percent of the vote against Mugabe’s 43,2 percent but this was not enough to avoid a run-off that Mugabe won after Tsvangirai withdrew citing intimidation of voters.