What just happened in Zimbabweâ€™s March 31 national parliamentary poll?
Simply this: the urban poor and working-class were cheated. The rural poor were intimidated into supporting a government whose costs to them now far outweigh the limited benefits (for 130,000 households) of the ineffectual land redistribution strategy that began in 2000. And the regional super-power collaborated to the full.
The official results, announced on 2 April, give the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) 78 seats, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) 41 (down from 57 seats in 2000), and 1 to an independent (the notorious former ruling party information minister, Jonathan Moyo).
Consider the past quarter century of political repression meted out to opponents of Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF. During the 1980s, an initial round of strikes and land invasions was suppressed by the new government; approximately 20,000 people of Ndebele ethnicity were killed in horrendous massacres; single women were rounded up in urban raids; students were regularly beat up when they objected to declining living standards and corruption; workers were targeted from the late 1980s when Mugabe lost control of the trade unions; and the urban poor suffered police shootings during mid/late-1990s IMF Riots.
Who was winning, then? Mainly Mugabeâ€™s cronies, a several thousand strong mini-class of high-ranking bureaucrats and business elites; but most of the countryâ€™s 100,000 white people too, who until farm invasions began in earnest in February 2000, lived the high life. The 4000 commercial farmers controlling the vast bulk of productive rain-fed land benefited outlandishly from 1990s economic liberalisation. Race and class inequality worsened. World Bank and IMF policies â€“ ably implemented by Zanu PFâ€™s ascendant neoliberal technocrats – deindustrialised the economy and savaged once-admirable social policies. Aspirants for â€˜indigenous bourgeoisâ€™ status jumped the queue too, based on financial speculation and military deals with the Democratic Republic of the Congoâ€™s Laurent Kabila, fighting a war against rebels, Rwandans and Ugandans.
Who was fighting back? Grassroots efforts for change peaked in February 1999 with the Working Peopleâ€™s Convention, birthing the MDC and producing a progressive manifesto. However, funding from and alliances with white farmers and imperialists, including US state agencies, led to moderation. Mugabe quickly labeled the MDCâ€™s leader Morgan Tsvangirai, former head of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, as â€œTsvangisonâ€ the â€œboyâ€ serving tea to the Blair/Bush global regime.
In addition, the aftermath of a shocking February 2000 defeat of Mugabeâ€™s constitutional referendum saw a revamping of Zanu PFâ€™s electoral machinery. The parliamentary elections in June 2000 and March 2002â€™s presidential contest were characterised by high levels of violence and blatant thievery. Last weekâ€™s parliamentary vote saw less coercion, which necessitated more craftiness on the count.
How did Mugabe do it this time? A few days after the count, the MDCâ€™s Eddie Cross reported, â€œA message passed on to Tsvangirai from a state security agent said the MDC had in fact â€˜wonâ€™ in 94 of the 120 seats.â€ Whatever the genuine will of the people added up to, Mugabe ensured it was suppressed. From Pretoria, his ally South African president Thabo Mbeki sent carefully censored â€˜observer teamsâ€™ to declare the result â€˜the will of the people.â€™
Veteran Johannesburg liberal journalist, Alistair Sparks, summarises the terrain quite accurately: â€œThe playing field was skewed from the beginning. The constitution enabled Mugabe to handpick 30 MPs, which meant the opposition MDC needed 76 of the 120 contested seats to win a majority of one while the ruling Zanu PF needed only 71 for a two-thirds majority.
Add to that the years of intimidation of opposition voters, practically no access for the opposition to the state-controlled media, the closure of the countryâ€™s only independent daily newspaper, the shutting out of foreign observers and correspondents, the redrawing of constituency boundaries to eliminate several safe MDC seats and make others marginal, a hopelessly outdated voters roll which opened the way for nearly two million â€˜ghostâ€™ votes to be cast, and you begin to get the picture.
Ghost voters aside, more than 133,000 living voters were turned away from the polls because of the defective roll. But it was the count which proved decisive – something which was also widely predicted but which the friendly observer teams appear not to have observed.â€
Simply, Zanu PF captured the vote processing procedure. Local analysts say the theft worked in 2000 and 2002 when Zanu PF counted trucked-in ballots centrally. Results were faxed to Mugabeâ€™s home, where they were altered and sent back. This time, things were more difficult because counting was done at voting stations, from where the numbers were sent to the constituency centres.
The Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network â€“ a reputable NGO alliance with observers in 6,000 of the approximately 8,000 polling stations â€“ denounced the confusion that unfolded on March 31, as to whether or not results were to be posted immediately on the station doors. Initially Zanu PF endorsed this approach. It changed tack later, so the votes could be released in aggregate from the constituency centres.
Polling agents were forced to sign affidavits swearing secrecy to station procedures. This indicates the importance of the ghost voters â€“ the MDC claims 2.7 million – appearing on a terribly inaccurate voterâ€™s roll of 5.7 million. Says Cross, â€œThese were manipulated and used to pad out areas where Zanu PF felt they could dominate the election campaign and control the electoral process.â€
The most visible manifestation of the theft was the Zimbabwe Electoral Commissionâ€™s sudden halt in the announcements of aggregate voters per constituency on the night of March 31, so that the total votes cast would not conflict so baldly with the altered numbers. In some cases there was a smoking gun. In Manyame, a half-hour drive south-west of Harare, Mugabeâ€™s nephew ran. The Commission announced that 14,812 people had voted in the constituency. The next day the total was changed to more than 24,000, resulting in a 15,448 win for Zanu PF.
There were dozens of similar incidents, amounting to at least 200,000 extra votes beyond the Commissionâ€™s original tallies. Even the African Unionâ€™s chief election observer, who first endorsed the poll, has since called for an investigation.
Under these circumstances, should the MDC have played the electoral game? The party and civil society supporters knew the playing field was badly skewed and that the vote counting would be monopolised by Mugabeâ€™s agents. The shadowy Electoral Directorate â€“ not even in the Electoral Act â€“ is completely controlled by the military.
Last August the MDC announced a â€˜suspensionâ€™ of participation on grounds that the minimum conditions set by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), including freedom of association, access to mass media, and a truly independent electoral commission, were not implemented. Matters improved noticeably after the MDCâ€™s January announcement that it would indeed participate. SADC guidelines were flouted systematically, but not nearly as badly as in 2000 or 2002, or subsequent parliamentary by-elections.
Some sources say Tsvangirai himself was not keen to participate, but others in the MDC prevailed. Parliamentarians with no other income wanted to stay in parliament, the trade unions wanted the MDC to contest given the failure of both elite negotiations and intermittent mass action strategies, and people in rural and urban Matabeleland saw no sense in giving their MDC seats to the other tiny opposition parties.
Once Tsvangirai was cleared of a frame-up treason charge last September, he toured Africa and Europe, and pressure was undoubtedly applied there. Long-time Mugabe supporter Mbeki â€“ who announced on March 1 that this election would be free and fair â€“ put heavy pressure on Tsvangirai to participate.
Mbeki will continue suffering ridicule, especially as he tours the world proclaiming that the New Partnership for Africaâ€™s Development signals the continental elitesâ€™ democratic commitment. Cross conceded, â€œWhat was very disappointing was the appalling lack of integrity (or simply stupidity) in the SA and the SADC observer missions. But we were told by almost everyone before this whole farce began that we were wasting our time and money – the election would be rigged (the Zanu PF cannot get off the Tiger without being eaten hypothesis) and that the African observer missions would whitewash the result. Our detractors were spot on, but it was worth the effort.â€
Was it? Time will tell whether the post-election despondency across much of Zimbabwe will lift. MDC youth begged the leadership to foment protest, but more conservative voices in the national executive prevailed over the weekend. By mid-week, reports were emerging of Zanu PFâ€™s revenge campaigns against known MDC voters especially in rural areas.
Will there result, now, an upsurge of urban protest against both electoral and socio-economic grievances? Many commodities â€“ including petrol and the staple food, maize â€“ will likely become scarce and prices will soar. The effective South African fuel price is two and a half times as much as Zimbabweâ€™s controlled price. As the Zimbabwe dollar devalues, the last six monthsâ€™ artificially-constructed economic revival based upon strategic state spending and lower interest rates will quickly degenerate.
Nevertheless, Zanu PF leaders hope that the election will convince the region to forget about Zimbabwe, that their two-thirds control of parliament will allow constitutional changes and reinforce Mugabeâ€™s rule perhaps until 2010, and that Mbeki will bring the World Bank and IMF back to the party (Mugabe has been defaulting on loans since 1999 simply because Zimbabwe ran out of foreign currency for repayment).
According to Bulawayo activist Briggs Bomba, Zanu PF â€œis doing everything to regain the confidence of international capital, and to re-integrate with the â€˜international communityâ€™. Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono is leading efforts to liberalise not just the monetary system but the whole economy and to re-engage international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank.â€
Even if winning was impossible, perhaps this election fray allowed the MDC to at least unveil the most manipulative political regime in a region full of venal state elites. Their challenge is to prove this decisively to the rest of society.
The challenge for us living elsewhere, not suffering the daily degradation associated with Mugabeâ€™s tyranny, is to offer solidarity. The prior months and weeks were partially encouraging.
The Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) attempted several times to enter Zimbabwe to strategise with the ZCTU. Several other activist groups worked hard to raise consciousness, albeit under carefully controlled conditions. The union movement, however, disappointed activists â€“ especially in the impressive community-labour Zimbabwe Social Forum – by pulling back from pre-election threats to blockade the SA-Zimbabwe border, after severe pressure from Mbeki and his officials.
And yet, a February 25 statement by South African civil societyâ€™s Zimbabwe Solidarity and Consultation Forum still sees a role for Mbeki: â€œWe say confidently that we have contributed to a much greater understanding of the crisis and challenges in Zimbabwe within our organizations and within the broader South African debateâ€¦ We commend efforts made by the South African government and by SADC to foster talks between the major political forces in Zimbabwe to arrive at a negotiated road-map for a democratic transition.â€
More militant South Africans reject such a role, based upon Mbekiâ€™s appalling performance to date. Leftist activists in the Anti-Privatisation Forum and Jubilee movement engaged in a joint fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe in February, although colleagues from the Landless Peopleâ€™s Movement disputed criticisms of Mugabeâ€™s messy land redistribution.
But the real solidarity action ahead may revolve around COSATU and broader civil society forces. Can they shake free of Mbekiâ€™s influence and establish a strategy for longer-term support? This would more forcefully and surgically target Mugabe and his cronies, and nurture the unpredictable resurgence of Zimbabwean protests, which certainly still lie ahead.
Bond and Moore teach at University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, and, respectively, coauthored and coedited books for the university press: *Zimbabweâ€™s Plunge: Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism and the Search for Social Justice*, 2003 and *Zimbabwe: Crisis and Transition*, 2005 (http://www.unpress.co.za). Both spent last week in Zimbabwe.