Without reforms, 2018 vote will be a farce

By: 
Obert Gutu

AT the very centre of Zimbabwe’s political challenges over the past few decades has been the failure by the country to hold free, fair and credible elections that can successfully pass the test of legitimacy. With the coming on board of the hugely popular labour-backed political party, the Movement for Democratic Change, elections in Zimbabwe, since the year 2000, have always been mired by violence, voter intimidation and all other forms of electoral malfeasance. Therein lies the fundamental problem that has been haunting our national politics for almost two decades now.

Election 2018 is less than thirty months away but already, there is absolutely nothing in our national electoral playing field that is pointing to the possibility of holding a free and fair election. The constitutional body that is mandated with the responsibility of running all elections in this country, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), is currently facing seemingly insurmountable challenges mainly relating to, but certainly not limited to, severe financial incapacitation, material resources constraints and an all-pervading culture of political interference; particularly from the ruling Zanu PF party.

It is a notorious fact that the national voters’ roll remains in shambles and that, in fact, the country is not even able to tell whether or not the so-called biometric voters’ registration will be adopted for Election 2018. Presently, there is a lot of ambiguity and imprecision regarding what, exactly, will be the form and nature of voters’ registration that will be formally adopted by the ZEC in time for Election 2018.

The media environment, particularly the electronic media, remains a field that is rigidly controlled and manipulated by the Zanu PF regime. The electronic media is an extremely powerful and comparatively inexpensive mode of mass communication. Little doubt, therefore, that the Zanu PF regime has maintained an iron-fisted control of the electronic media. In the prevailing harsh economic environment, very few people, even the urban elite, can afford to buy newspapers regularly. Hence, the majority of Zimbabweans, particularly those who live in rural areas, mainly rely on radio when they want to access news and other forms of information.

Thirty-six years after independence, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) still controls and runs the nation’s sole television station as well as four radio stations. The other two ‘’privately’’ owned national radio stations are, in fact, de facto extensions of the Zanu PF - controlled electronic media. One just has to tune in to the news bulletins of these two ‘’privately’’ owned national radio stations to actually understand and appreciate the fact that both radio stations are actually competing with the four ZBC–run radio stations in churning out Zanu PF propaganda.

With less than three years to go before Election 2018, there is absolutely no indication that the Zanu PF regime is in a mood to loosen its vice-like grip on the country’s electronic media. A number of so-called community radio stations have been granted licences to operate but mainly because of severe financial constraints, very few, if any, of these community radio stations have managed to go on air.

This state of affairs makes the Zanu PF regime perfectly comfortable because they know that there is virtually no competition as far as the electronic media is concerned. There is a very real likelihood that Election 2018 will be conducted without any meaningful change to the prevailing electronic media environment. Information is power and this is the main reason why all fascist and repressive regimes the world over always invariably maintain a tight-fisted control of the media; particularly the electronic media.

Opposition political parties in Zimbabwe hardly have any access to the Zanu PF-controlled electronic media. In the few instances that opposition parties are covered by the electronic media, there will be a lot of massaging and twisting of information to such an extent that consumers of the electronic media product will be fed with crude lies and naked, misleading propaganda that always seeks to portray the Zanu PF regime in a positive light.

The other major challenge that is afflicting our electoral playing field is the abuse of traditional leaders by the Zanu PF regime. In the rural areas, traditional leaders are commandeered to operate as Zanu PF political commissars, particularly during election times. Stories abound of traditional leaders being ordered by the regime’s grassroots agents to ensure that all villagers under their control vote for Zanu PF candidates. In the prevailing situation where millions of villagers countrywide rely on government to access food aid, traditional leaders effectively play the role of victimising all those villagers who are known to be or are suspected to be opposition political party supporters.

The main thrust of this treatise is to postulate that Election 2018 will be a complete farce if electoral reforms are not implemented timeously. It is virtually impossible to hold a free and fair election in the context of the prevailing political and electoral environment in Zimbabwe. This is now time for all political parties and other bodies that are concerned with the holding of elections, to put their heads together and come up with an appropriate and suitable political and electoral architecture that will guarantee the holding of a free and fair plebiscite in 2018.

A contested electoral outcome in 2018 will inevitably mean that Zimbabwe shall remain mired in socio-economic malaise and political turmoil. It is practically impossible to stimulate and sustain economic growth and stability in the absence of a stable political environment. Capital is a damn coward and it invariably avoids settling in countries that are politically volatile and unstable.

Zimbabweans are looking forward to a future that will usher in a prosperous economic era underpinned by a stable political environment. It is against this background that we should, as a nation, renounce all forms of retrogressive and backward electoral practices that deliberately thwart the will of the people to freely choose who should govern them.

Effectively, therefore, an election is a process and not an event. The time to clean up our electoral playing field is right now. Any election that gives rise to a disputed outcome will simply mean that Zimbabwe shall remain trapped in the backwaters of political repression and economic stagnation and regression.

As Election 2018 beckons, it behoves all political players, including the ruling Zanu PF party, to make sure that the will of the people shall not be subverted. It should be noted that all hope is not lost for Zimbabwe; but then, the reality is that there is a lot of hard work to be done before we can even up the electoral playing field. It can be done and in fact, it should be done.

Obert Gutu is the MDC national spokesperson and a practising corporate lawyer in Harare. He writes this opinion piece in his personal capacity.

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