By Tamzin Hudson : Elections are, by their very nature, geared towards promoting democracy through testing the popular will of the people towards a result that reflects the type of government the people want to see in place. Presumably, the party that is chosen is on the basis that it will be best placed to manage the myriad of complexities along the political, social and economic spectrum and set a determined course of action for the future. Elections are only a part of the journey towards the consolidation of democracy, which also requires a strong, determined opposition with a clear platform and vision for the future. One of the key questions in Zimbabwe’s election is whether the opposition, particularly the MDC-T was up to the task.
In order for democracy to flourish, however one needs to see credible, free and fair elections and an enabling environment in which the elections can take place. Only in this type of an environment can the popular vote be secured. Ideally, this involves a series of processes, including a programme of voter education, a free and fair media with all parties having equal access and shared time on public broadcasters and in the print and electronic media. The voters roll needs to reflect the true demographics of the voting population and there should be an environment free of intimidation and any form of violence. In Zimbabwe’s case there is clear evidence that the pre-election phase and indeed the elections were marred by serious infractions of the norms and standards that should characterise a society undergoing elections.
The opposition may feel legitimately aggrieved. According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), which had 7000 observers in all constituencies of the country there were indications that in opposition strongholds, primarily in urban centres, up to a million voters were “systematically disenfranchised.” ZESN further adds that only 67.94 percent of urban voters were registered and that 750 000 urban voters were missing on the voter’s roll and that at 82 percent of urban polling stations many potential voters were turned away. There were also reports of widespread intimidation in rural areas, considerable media bias and a lack of meaningful voter education programmes.
MDC-T’s leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had his bid to have the Courts direct the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to release a range of election-related voting data stymied forcing him to withdraw his court challenge. It was nonetheless a positive sign that the MDC-T was seeking redress through the correct channels, however in Zimbabwe the odds are stacked in favour of the ZANU-PF. Entrenched interests in the status quo and penalties for turning against the party made any challenge seem a very difficult proposition from the start.
The outcome of the election means that Zimbabwe has stepped away from any potential move towards further consolidating democracy. The elections have served instead to strengthen ZANU-PF and Mugabe’s grip on power in a Zimbabwe that has a constitutional system heavily weighted in the favour of the executive. Only this time, ZANU-PF has a two thirds majority in Parliament putting it firmly in the driving seat.
Many unanswered questions will remain hanging from this election and these will further poison the political atmosphere. The fact that the Courts and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) were unresponsive to the challenge by the MDC-T suggests that democracy, at least through an election process, is well and truly in peril. This is causing anxiety in certain quarters, especially with Egypt as a backdrop where people are grappling with issues of elections and what they really mean in the life of a country and what to do when they further marginalise communities and create opposing camps. More troublesome, is when the opposition does not see elections as a viable vehicle towards securing their interests and bringing about changes that are sorely needed.
The opportunity has been lost in Zimbabwe to demonstrate that one can take legitimate grievances to court and follow legitimate channels. Transparency has also been dealt a blow by the public being denied the opportunity to have the benefit of a full picture of the election outcome. Save to say, that all parties from both sides have admitted that there were looming gaps, most notably in the voter’s roll. Zimbabwe’s leaders from all sides would do well to reflect on the elections and determine whether they were held in terms of the constitutional norms and procedures of the country. It is imperative for the country to set about seeking to strengthen the institutions of governance and the notion that the rule of law must be followed and that citizens have a right to know. Reviewing the independence of the ZEC and electoral dispute mechanisms will be a priority and restore the confidence of citizens in the electoral process going forward.
The opposition too will do well to reflect on their position after these elections. The MDC-T has come in for a lot of criticism and is rumoured to be fracturing. It should now critically focus its energies on (1) reviewing its election performance and identifying gaps and weaknesses; (2) reviewing party structures and party leadership; (3) designing a strategy to rebuild itself around a strong action plan for creating a better future for all Zimbabweans; and (4) spearhead a dialogue on putting in place a plan to build a strong and viable opposition by reaching out to other political parties in opposition, civil society groups, trade unions and youth movements. There is no denying that the opposition is up for the taking and a shake-up may be in the works. Zimbabwe needs change and opposition groupings now have an opportunity to drive that process forward.