ZIMBABWE: Vote first, talk later

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Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has condemned the proclamation of a March election date by President Robert Mugabe, and is considering boycotting the poll.

Mugabe announced on Friday that harmonised presidential, parliamentary, senate and council elections would be held on 29 March. But the MDC, backed by pro-democracy civil society groups, has argued that the date did not leave enough time to prepare for fair and meaningful polls.

Prof Welshman Ncube, secretary-general of one of the two MDC factions negotiating with the ruling party, said Mugabe’s unilateral decision on the date meant that dialogue with the ruling party was at an end, and the question was whether the MDC would participate in the poll.

Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders had asked South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate a solution to Zimbabwe’s eight-year political stalemate, but the talks had stalled over the MDC’s demand for political reform to level the playing field, and insistence on a June poll date to allow enough time for the reforms to be put in place.

“The unilateral setting up of a date for elections by Mugabe, when we had declared a dispute to the facilitator, President Mbeki, on the date for elections and the issue of a transitional constitution, effectively repudiated the dialogue,” said Ncube.

With Mugabe having pulled the rug from under the feet of the opposition, ending any progress towards political reforms, Ncube said the two MDC factions were now united in finding a synchronised response. “We are trying to make sure that the National Councils of the two formations meet during the course of this week to debate and come up with decisions on the way forward,” he told IRIN.

Tendai Biti, secretary-general of the MDC faction led by party founder Morgan Tsvangirai, said Mugabe was stampeding the country into the polling station. “The only problem with this election is that it is clear so far that an election in March will be another farce. An election in March is likely to breed another contested outcome because the sticking issues in the dialogue process are far from being resolved.”

He said the main sticking points in the dialogue had been the MDC’s call for the government’s acceptance of transitional constitution that would respect basic political freedoms, the right of Zimbabweans abroad to vote, government guarantees not to use aid as a political instrument, and the creation of an environment free from political violence.

Arnold Tsunga, chairman of the Crisis Coalition, an umbrella pro-democracy lobby group, told IRIN that logistically a March ballot was unrealistic. “As things stand, people don’t know in which elections or wards they will be voting, and that means there should be adequate voter education to ensure that people know where they will cast their votes. The voters’ roll is in shambles and all that points to a process which will be more of a ritual rather than an all inclusive one.”

His concerns were echoed by Rindai Chipfunde-Vava, executive director of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), a poll-monitoring group. “The dates for the inspection of the voters’ roll has not been announced and people do not know where they will vote, and if they are turned away the first time they are not likely to try again at another polling station.”

“This is a harmonised election and the implications are that there is need for more voter education, because there will be more candidates, more polling stations and more ballot boxes. It is a mammoth task for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which will run the elections,” she said.

Legal affairs minister Patrick Chinamasa, representative of the ruling ZANU-PF at the talks, told local media that the issue of constitutional reform would be dealt with after the elections.

“As far as we are concerned, the dialogue that is being facilitated by South Africa is still ongoing. As ZANU-PF we are committed to an irreversible process that will result in the presentation of a draft constitution for national consultation. We would like whatever document comes out of the national consultative process to be subjected to a referendum and, if people accept it, only then will the country put in place a new constitution.”

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