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Anxiety and Deprivation Dominate Ahead of Zimbabwe Polls

Zimbabweans go to the polls on Saturday against the backdrop of an economy that has collapsed. Aid agencies say the implosion of the country’s agricultural sector has left many in danger of starvation. Even people with money are forced to stand in long lines for scarce basic food and fuel. Nevertheless, Zimbabwean voters are now faced with the daunting challenge of deciding who among three strong personalities should lead their country into the future. President Robert Mugabe, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and former finance minister and independent Simba Makoni are the candidates. Yet many in Zimbabwe and in the international community fear the voting will not be free and fair. In the first of a five-part series setting the scene for the upcoming polls, VOA’s Darren Taylor reports.

Since Zimbabwe’s last elections, in 2005, life has gone from bad to worse for most of the country’s inhabitants. Annual inflation is the highest in the world at 100,000 per cent – price increases on basic goods sweep Zimbabwe almost weekly, and only two in ten Zimbabwean adults have jobs.

“It’s very difficult. As I’m speaking to you right now I’m actually using candles because there is no power. I can’t cook. And when the power is there, there’s very little to cook. Mealiemeal (maize meal), which is like our staple food, is very difficult to get. People still spend days and days queuing to get mealiemeal. Other basics, like sugar and soap, you don’t find them on the shelves,” says Netsai Mlilo, a freelance reporter in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.

Brendan Murphy is the chief of Voice of America’s Studio 7 Zimbabwe service. From their base in Washington D.C., he and his team of journalists – mostly Zimbabwean exiles – are in constant contact with people in their home country. Murphy says he doesn’t know how Zimbabweans are surviving, and how they’ll find time to vote during their daily battle to survive.

“Ten kilograms of mealiemeal costs 100 million (Zimbabwean) dollars. A liter of gas (petrol) costs 25 million dollars…. The cost of living is just astronomical for the average person. People are just looking, desperately, at these elections for a way out of that,” Murphy explains.

Mlilo says the people of Bulawayo recently rejoiced when their water supply became regular…. But their exuberance was short-lived: “We are not sure now about the quality. The local authority says it doesn’t have enough money to buy chemicals to purify the water. Every day brings a new setback.”

And when medical emergencies strike in Zimbabwe these days, Mlilo says there’s almost never fuel to power ambulances.

Many Zimbabwean analysts, such as Sydney Masamvu of the International Crisis Group, blame the situation on the policies of their country’s 84-year-old leader.

“Under normal circumstances, there’s no chance in hell that Mugabe would win an election!” he exclaims.

International observers specifically trace the beginning of Zimbabwe’s meltdown to President Mugabe’s controversial land reform program. In 2000, the Zanu-P.F. government started confiscating commercial farms owned by white people for, in the words of the state, “redistribution to landless blacks.” But it’s largely Mr. Mugabe’s ruling party allies, security force chiefs and veterans of the 1970s war of liberation who have benefited from being allocated extensive tracts of prime land. Agriculture has stalled, and Zimbabwe has regressed from being an exporter to an importer of food.

But President Mugabe, who has ruled the country with an iron fist since its independence from Britain in 1980, blames “the West” for Zimbabwe’s woes. He says Britain and the United States are agitating for his overthrow so that they can put what he refers to as their “puppets” and “stooges” into power. Mr. Mugabe also blames the hardships suffered by his nation on U.S. and European economic sanctions, even though there are no such measures in place against Zimbabwe. The E.U. and U.S. are, however, employing “targeted” sanctions against the president and some of his Zanu-P.F. colleagues. They’re banned from traveling to America and certain European countries, and their assets there have been frozen.

Violence and intimidation

Previous polls in Zimbabwe have been rife with violence. Police brutality against opposition members and supporters has been the order of the day. Members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.) have been thrown into jail, beaten and allegedly tortured.

“There are growing concerns around incidents of violence and repression…. We quite expect the usual range of intimidation and violence,” says Mike Davis, an official with a civic group in the country’s capital, the Combined Harare Residents Association.

Says Blessing Zulu, a Zimbabwean journalist working with Murphy: “We have heard reports of a number of candidates in the opposition being abducted and remanded into custody. They therefore can’t campaign. They are effectively been frozen out of the election process.”

“The environment at the moment is massively tilted in favor of the incumbent regime,” agreed Briggs Bomba, a former Zimbabwean student leader now working for the Africa Action lobby group in Washington.

“There’s clear intimidation taking place. Recently we had the head of the prison services ordering officers under his command to vote for Mugabe. And we’ve heard as well threatening statements from the War Veteran’s (Association) chairperson, Jabulani Sibanda, where he made outrageous statements to the effect that he would rather be under a military government for five years than have (Simba) Makoni or anyone else come in as the president.”

Senior police and army officers have been expressing similar sentiments ahead of the ballot. Zimbabwe’s police chief, Augustine Chihuri, has warned that he will not let opposition “puppets” take power.

“The violence that we’ve seen in the past – people’s memories are still scarred,” says Bomba. “So there’s a lot of fear. The legal environment is tilted in favor of the regime. The government has created a very serious bureaucracy which makes it very difficult for people to go in and freely observe elections.”

Masamvu affirmed: “The state has muzzled up the opposition, and the opposition parties are not being allowed to use the political space to launch their campaigns and to access the voters. The vote is being stolen or rigged, in the context of the processes (that take place) before the actual voting.”

The Zanu-P.F. administration denies that it’s subverting the electoral process, and has repeatedly stressed that the elections will be free and fair.

But Mlilo says she’s personally witnessed security forces preventing opposition supporters from campaigning.

“Just the other day, one of our aspiring (opposition) candidates, a woman, Thabitha Khumalo, was also arrested and detained overnight for conducting a door-to-door campaign.”

‘Witches, charlatans, two-headed creatures, prostitutes’

Mr. Mugabe, in customary fashion, has been using inflammatory language to denigrate his opponents. He’s called them “witches,” “charlatans,” “traitors” and “two-headed creatures.” He’s also called Makoni a political “prostitute”.

Michelle Gavin, an International Affairs Fellow at the United States’ Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of the Council’s Special Report on Zimbabwe, says what she calls the president’s insulting language “makes it impossible that you would have a long enough period of genuinely free and fair pre-election conditions such that you could have a free and fair election.”

Masamvu says President Mugabe’s “saber-rattling” is setting the scene for a “violent backlash” against his opponents and is also evidence that the octogenarian leader has “no (real) message to sell” to the electorate.

Blessing Zulu says while the Zanu-P.F. leaders’ “aggressive” vocabulary is “vintage Mugabe,” it nevertheless remains “dangerous.”

“In the past, people like the (Zanu-P.F.) youth militia and others have become involved, using Mugabe’s language as a green light to persecute their boss’s perceived enemies.”

Masamvu agrees: “Another tactic that the president has also used is to say that these (opposition forces) are being fronted by the West. So therefore they are enemies of the state and are legitimate targets.”

Irregularities and lack of voter education

M.D.C. secretary general Tendai Biti says Zimbabwe's Electoral Commission is printing millions of extra ballot papers in order to sway the vote in favor of Mr. Mugabe.

According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Z.E.S.N.), the list of polling stations released by the Electoral Commission contains “significant errors and relatively few polling stations in Bulawayo and Harare provinces.” It’s a similar situation in Matabeleland, southern Zimbabwe, with polling stations being located in incorrect constituencies. The Z.E.S.N. commented: “People won’t know where to vote on polling day.”

In some municipalities, where thousands are registered, the Z.E.S.N. says according to its calculations officials will need to process voters at a rate of one every 22 seconds – in some cases as fast a one every nine seconds – in order for all registered voters in the particular constituencies to cast their ballots. This will clearly be an impossible task, says the Z.E.S.N., and could leave many thousands without a chance to vote.

According to some analysts, this is a clear strategy by the government to disenfranchise people in regions that have previously voted heavily against Mr. Mugabe. The state denies the charge and calls it a “fabrication.”

Mike Davis, who is particularly concerned with monitoring the municipal elections that are scheduled for the same day as the presidential polls, says there’s been “substantial manipulation of legislation, which has the effect of undermining our democratic rights.”

The state has, for example, instituted legislation that allows the Minister of Local Government to appoint up to 25 per cent of city councilors in Harare as representatives of so-called “special interest groups.”

“This means the minister will appoint councilors that will represent his – and only his – interests. These are just a few examples of the manipulation of the pre-election environment,” Davis says.

He adds that there are “enormous problems around the whole election exercise.” Candidate lists have been published late, which delays the opposition’s attempts to introduce candidates to voters.

Davis is convinced that problems experienced in the 2002 and 2005 elections, such as too few polling stations, are doomed to repeat themselves.

“As a result, many voters failed to cast their ballots. We expect this to happen again,” he says.

Roxanne Lawson, of the TransAfrica Forum, which lobbies the U.S. government on African issues, says her organization is “extremely concerned” about the approaching elections, for a variety of reasons.

“Firstly, because of the extreme financial stress that the Zimbabwean government and people are under, it’s making it almost impossible for them to prepare for elections in a real way. This is an historic election: this is the first time in Zimbabwean history that you’re going to have presidential, parliamentary, senatorial and (local) council elections on the same day. That’s a huge undertaking for any country. But for Zimbabwe, because of its very particular financial and social situation, it’s almost impossible. We’ve been looking at reports coming out of Zimbabwe that the country is not really prepared for elections,” Lawson states.

She says the “average Zimbabwean is going to be terribly marginalized by this election, regardless of who the victor is.”

Netsai Mlilo points to a lack of voter education in the months before the polls as another reason she thinks the election is set to be fraught with confusion.

“People don’t seem to be very clear about how the voting process is going to be conducted. Especially in the rural areas, there’s a lot of confusion stemming from ignorance.”

Danger of apathy

Briggs Bomba says Zimbabweans remain “interested” in the upcoming elections, despite what he calls the travesties of the past – but many are also “very skeptical.”

“They tried to vote for change in 2000 and failed. In 2002, they failed again. In 2005, they failed again….”

Bomba therefore doesn’t think voter turnout will be “too high.” But he adds, “If the people who turned out to inspect the voter’s roll is anything to go by, we are going to see a moderate turnout. But I maintain that many people will not vote – simply because they will be standing in queues for maize meal, sugar and cooking oil. They can’t make the sacrifice. Voting is a luxury they can’t afford.”

Similarly, Zulu is also concerned that the polls will be characterized by a “high degree of apathy.”

“You have some people even questioning the wisdom of going to the elections (to vote). This voter apathy is what always has been happening in Zimbabwe,” Zulu says.

But Mlilo says she’s seen a “definite shift” in the country in recent months, whereby groups of people who had previously not been interested in voting suddenly became politically active.

“Previously, those in the middle and upper classes who had money did not have to get involved in politics. Now, things have changed – life has become desperate for everybody. For even those who have the money, there’s very little to buy, so that causes a problem. And you’ll get those people – they’ll be going to vote because they want to be able to spend the money that they have,” says Mlilo.

“Although people are struggling for survival, they are very much focused on this election, simply because they realize that things can’t get much worse before survival becomes nearly impossible. And so therefore the election is the only rescue in sight, if you will,” says Brendan Murphy.

“I think these elections are looked upon by the average Zimbabweans as not necessarily a sure path to democracy or reform, but simply a potential stepping stone to something better. The mood amongst the populace is one of desperation, and they simply hope that something surprising will happen, that something unexpected will happen here to spring the country out of the rut that it’s in. People are just hoping and praying – against past experience – that this (ballot) will actually make a difference.”

Davis, though, is pessimistic: “There’s an inherent anti-democratic attitude (in the Zimbabwe government) that voting is almost like a privilege and not a duty for a citizen. There’s never been a facilitation of our right to vote. There’ve always been obstacles put in our way – apart from the gross intimidation and the gross fraud that we’ve experienced in the past. Just the physical process of voting is made extremely difficult for people (by the authorities). And I think this is understandable in the context of an anti-democratic regime such as we have here.”