MDC: good decision, bad timing

Good decision but bad timing. That's what some people are saying about the Movement for Democratic Change's decision to pull out of all pending elections.

It was a good decision because the party could no longer continue to participate in a sham. But it was bad timing because, the move was announced shortly after an independent poll had indicated that support for President Robert Mugabe had soared from 20 percent to 46 percent in the five years since the formation of the MDC.

Mugabe's job performance score had shot up from 21 percent to 58 percent though the economy had shrunk by 30 percent over the same period. Support for MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai stood at only 18 percent.

The MDC pulled out of all pending elections to put pressure on Mugabe to abide by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) principles and guidelines on democratic elections adopted at its summit in Mauritius last month.

The guidelines stipulate that member states should allow full participation of citizens in the political process, freedom of association, political tolerance and equal access for all political parties to the state media.

They also say members should set up impartial, all-inclusive, competent and accountable national electoral bodies and should safeguard human and civil liberties of all citizens including freedom of movement, assembly, association, expression and campaigning.

The Zimbabwean government has already conceded that it will establish an independent electoral commission, and will allow voting over a single day, counting of votes at polling stations and will increase the number of polling stations.

Observers say concessions made so far by the ruling party fall far short of the guidelines set by the regional body. They argue that though the government has conceded to the setting up of an independent electoral commission, what is more important is its composition and whether it will be acceptable to all parties.

Zimbabwe has denied the opposition access to all state media and has closed down the only privately owned daily that was sympathetic to the opposition. It also closed down a private television station, which, though it did not broadcast news of its own, linked up with the British Broadcasting Corporation, as well as privately owned radio stations which have since resurfaced overseas.

The severest blow to the MDC, however, is the Public Order and Security Act which bars the party from holding campaign rallies unless these are sanctioned by police. Police, headed by ex-combatant Augustine Chihuri, are giving the opposition a tough time, citing one flimsy reason or another to prevent the party from holding rallies while the ruling ZANU-PF can hold up to three rallies a day. President Mugabe even uses state helicopters and air force pilots while his supporting team uses state machinery.

While most people believe the MDC is right to boycott pending elections to force the Mugabe administration to implement internationally acceptable electoral reforms, some observers say Zimbabweans could be reading too much into the SADC guidelines because they are not binding.

Lovemore Madhuku of the National Constitutional Assembly, which has had running battles with the police over demands for a new internationally acceptable constitution, argues that the MDC should not just concentrate on electoral reforms, but should seek political reforms as well.

He says outside pressure will not push Mugabe out. Only local pressure will do that. The MDC's boycott, therefore, will only be meaningful if it is followed up by action that will force Mugabe to the negotiating table.

Concessions made so far by Mugabe are meaningless because it is immaterial whether voting is done over one day and more polling stations are set up as long as the climate is not conducive for free and fair elections.

Reginald Matshava-Hove of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network says the guidelines are an important foundation for lobbying and set the ground rules for regional and international isolation for members who flout them.

He says concessions made by the government can also be meaningless as long as the major protagonists, the MDC, ZANU-PF and civic bodies are not discussing the electoral reforms. Discussions, he says, create goodwill and understanding, and remove a lot of suspicion.

Matshava-Hove says the proposed new constitution which was turned down by the people in 2000 and sparked a backlash by the government which saw widespread intimidation of the opposition and whites in particular was not rejected because of its content, but because of the way it was forced on the people.

While Mugabe's administration has been heavy handed and will do everything to ensure that ZANU-PF wins next year's elections to pave way for a gradual but noble exit for Mugabe, the administration is also desperate to win back legitimacy and return to the international fold so that the old man can bow out with dignity.

Mugabe is therefore likely to concede to more of the SADC demands, as most of them can be changed with the stroke of a pen. All that is needed is his word. If he gives the order, the air waves can be opened overnight and people can campaign freely.

Such a move would catch the MDC off-guard because it has done very little preparation for the elections, banking on the assumption that ZANU-PF's arrogance will force it to continue to defy regional and international pressure giving the MDC a plausible excuse to pull out of the elections.

But things seem to have changed. With his popularity soaring, Mugabe has no reason to continue on the war path. Victory is almost certain. The rigging is complete, not the rigging most people talk about that of tampering with ballots, but rigging people's minds, especially the rural voters where he has already secured the support of chiefs.

Besides, confusion in the MDC is likely to play in Mugabe's favour. There is no consensus on the boycott within the MDC, as this decision was made by the party's national executive council.

Most sitting MPs have vowed they will contest next year's elections. Three-quarters of the MPs do not sit in the national executive council, and sadly, they regard most of those in the council as losers, because they lost in the 2000 elections.

MPs like Job Sikhala and Trudy Stevenson have pointed out in the past that there is no question of boycott. "We can't be led by losers," they have often stated.

Voices of dissent within the MDC are also likely to increase as ZANU-PF and intelligence operatives infiltrate the party ahead of the elections. Sources say some MDC Members of Parliament are intelligence operatives and the coming elections are pay back time.

And if, as the AfroBarometer poll says, Mugabe's popularity has soared because of his propaganda machinery, then he is likely to take the MDC to the cleaners. The state media has rubbished the MDC boycott as "chickening out" because the party could not find a suitable candidate for the Seke constituency. Nominations for that seat were due on September 3 and the ZANU-PF candidate Phineas Chihota was unopposed.

Mugabe now needs only three seats to have a two-thirds majority which will enable him to change the constitution and bring in a Prime Minister as his successor. Observers say he can get those two votes from the MDC if he really wants to because he has enough people in the MDC to back him up. And they can do so safely without selling themselves out as they would simply appear to be defying the boycott when they are dancing to their master's voice.

Another major blow to the MDC could be that the party has done very little over the past five years to win local support. With more than 60 percent of the country's voters not loyal to either ZANU-PF or the MDC, people could be looking at what the parties have to offer rather than at campaign promises.

Besides, while the poor continue to suffer, the economy is definitely improving. Mugabe's chief architect, Gideon Gono, who has managed to cut across political lines, now says his programme should be through by 2007 instead of 2008. The MDC on the other hand says if it gets into power next year, it will take 15 years to bring the economy back to its 1999 level.

But as Madhuku said, everything will depend on how the MDC handles the boycott. ZANU-PF has nothing to lose. If the MDC boycotts the elections, it is likely to go ahead and amend the constitution. After all, there are smaller opposition parties , like ZAPU that will contest and give ZANU-PF token resistance.

If that fails, ZANU-PF is capable of creating an opposition that could contest the elections and even win a few seats to maintain some form of opposition. It has done so in the past. There is no reason why it should stop now.

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