MDC’s tactical ineptitude aided a sham election

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The Zimbabwean people may be doubly victimised — let down by the opposition, which was meant to fight for them, and the neighbours meant to support them.

Reaction to the Zimbabwean "election" seems to be polarising along familiar lines — regional governments are endorsing the poll while western powers reject it. And so we are again moving down a path in which "patriotic Africans" dismiss criticism of the ballot as western bias.

This will ensure the region will not press Zimbabwe’s rulers into allowing citizens to choose their government freely. But endorsing flawed elections does not assert Africa’s right to choose — it denies it. Where an election does not reflect what voters want, the losers are not westerners but the people, who have been denied a voice. To endorse this ballot is to show contempt for the people of Zimbabwe.

How do we know this election was not free or fair? Because the many reports of fraud and force were merely symptoms: the ballot was flawed in principle before the first evidence of fraud emerged. No scientific method can decide whether an election is fair — the only test is whether the parties who contest it and the citizens who vote in it believe it is fair.

This is impossible unless, before the poll begins, the parties accept the election process. In some democracies, this may be because the authority organising the election has convinced all parties it is impartial. In others, arrangements may be needed that give all parties a say in how the ballot is run. Our system has both features. Our electoral commission has developed a reputation for independence, but there are also processes that give parties a say if they are unhappy.

None of this applied in Zimbabwe. The opposition had no say in the election date and no say over the electoral commission. Opposition politicians made it clear before the election that they believed the commission was biased and the ballot rigged. And so it should never have happened at that time and in that form because no election can be legitimate in those circumstances.

One objection to this argument is that parties may complain about the process because they know they are not going to win. The answer is surely to invite the complainers into the process, ensure that it is open, and so make it impossible for parties to complain if they do lose fairly.

In Zimbabwe, that would have meant giving all parties a say in drawing up the election rules and choosing the commission, as well as an all-party committee to monitor the election. Where this is denied, opposition parties will feel cheated if they lose, not least because it is likely that the reason they were excluded from the process is because they really were cheated.

One reason Zimbabwe’s rulers got away with ramming down the throats of the citizenry a sham election is the tactical ineptitude of the opposition.

Opposition parties should never have agreed to participate in a ballot that was stacked against them — had they insisted on an election at a time and under rules to which all parties agreed, the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), whose role is usually to force the opposition to do what the ruling elite wants, may have been forced to support them.

This is only the latest in a string of tactical errors. Having been bullied by Sadc into entering a power-sharing arrangement, the opposition failed to come up with a strategy to turn it into a democratic breakthrough or, if that failed, to withdraw because democracy was not being taken seriously.

The root of the problem is the opposition’s tendency to believe that playing the political game on the terms of the governing elite can substitute for a lack of organised strength. Organised resistance is very difficult because the power-holders use extreme violence to suppress it. But, where democracy is denied, there is no substitute for building citizens’ organisation, even in the face of harsh repression.

The hope that taking part in sham elections and phoney power-sharing would achieve democracy in the absence of strength on the ground was deluded. If the opposition wants to restore its ability to push for democracy, it will place far more emphasis on building strength on the ground than in seeking or taking office in arrangements controlled by democracy’s enemies.

But the fact that Zimbabwe’s people have not been served well by opposition leaders is no reason to reject their right to choose their government freely. The opposition erred by taking part, but it made clear both before and after the ballot that it believes the people were cheated. That is enough to show that the election is not legitimate in the eyes of many Zimbabweans.

A ballot that only the winners think is fair cannot bring democracy. Anyone who believes in the right of Africans to choose will demand an election everyone in Zimbabwe can endorse — and increase the pressure on the governing elite until it agrees to it.


Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Article Source: Business Day



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