With less than two months to go to Zimbabwe’s crucial general election, opposition parties and rights organisations are warning that the ruling party is not doing enough to implement the reforms necessary to support a free and fair poll.
Since Zimbabwe’s current president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, came to power in November he has repeatedly promised that Zanu-PF under his leadership would change its approach to governance and embrace the principles of democracy.
Zimbabwe has a history of disputed polls and rights abuses under the country’s former dictator, Robert Mugabe. He ruled the southern African country for 37 years until he was ousted in a military takeover late last year at the age of 92.
Over the course of his reign, critics of Mugabe’s regime claimed Zanu-PF routinely stole general elections using violence, intimidation and vote-rigging. And the chief architect of this illegal manipulation of elections over the past 10 years has allegedly been none other than Mnangagwa.
But the 75-year-old party hardliner has indicated at every opportunity that the coming election on July 30th will be “free and fair”, and that Zanu-PF will accept the outcome, no matter which way it goes.
However, during a rally in Harare this week to launch the Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC) election manifesto, new party leader Nelson Chamisa warned that his alliance of opposition parties would not allow elections to take place unless reforms that level the playing field are put in place.
“We will not allow an election which is not free and fair,” Chamisa told supporters.”We are prepared to do anything necessary [to ensure the poll is legitimate]. We will keep pressuring them. We will do this every day until we get the reforms we want.”
Human Rights Watch had a similar view to the MDC, saying on Thursday that many essential reforms were still outstanding, and this threatened the credibility of the national elections.
The rights body’s Southern Africa director Dewa Mavhinga urged Mnangagwa “to go beyond mere rhetoric” and “take genuine steps” to address multiple areas of concern.
“For instance, a key test will be whether state media gives equal coverage and access to all political parties without bias or favour,” he said.
He added the government must also prevent the military from engaging in partisan politics, or interfering in electoral processes; and it must take strong action to deter violence and intimidation during the campaigning period.
In addition, Mavhinga said the role of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which is charged with overseeing the election, remained a concern, as at least 15 per cent of the body’s staff is made up of serving or former military personnel.
Mnangagwa responded to the criticism in an article published this week by the state-owned Herald newspaper, in which he said that opposition parties were already enjoying the fruits of democracy, and that the type of reforms they want are being introduced.
“I think they are so happy that there is an environment where they can express themselves right, left and centre . . . already less than two week ago I signed into law the reforms relating to the electoral Act, so the playing field is perfectly level,” he insisted.
Any reintegration of Zimbabwe into the international community appears reliant on the July 30th poll getting a rubber-stamp of approval from observers.
Such an outcome is essential if the country is to secure the billions of euro in investment needed to kick-start its economy, which has been shattered by decades of mismanagement and corruption.
To reassure potential investors and governments that his party has changed, Mnangagwa has invited international observers to monitor the poll and the campaigning leading up to it – the first time in 16 years that such an invitation has been extended to western nations.
Indeed, it appears many countries are keen to renew economic and political ties with Zimbabwe if the coming poll is endorsed.
Earlier this week, the United States, one of Zanu-PF’s harshest international critics, reportedly said it was interested in establishing better relations with Zimbabwe under the right circumstances.
Zimbabwe’s Daily News, an independently owned newspaper, reported that senior US diplomat Matthew Harrington, who is in the country this week to assess the situation, said the July election was a great opportunity for the government to prove its commitment to change.
“The election will be an important benchmark on whether the political environment in the past has changed for the better. We welcome President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s public announcement that elections would be free and fair and his decision to invite the international observers,” he said.
Harrington went on to say the US would also be looking for more political, good governance and human rights reforms as proof the regime was indeed embracing democracy.