Zimbabwe: Election campaigns go hi-tech

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Savvy text messaging and cheeky ring tones are the new face of cost-effective political campaigning in Zimbabwe in the run up to the 29 March election, despite the creakiness of country’s cell phone networks.

“Call it an SMS [short message service] craze if you like … It’s a simple, inexpensive and effortless way of campaigning for candidates of one’s choice,” Aleck Ndlovu, a political activist, told IRIN.

We need change in our country and what we are doing is to encourage each other [via text messages] to use our right to vote to achieve that change,” said Nobuhle Dube, a resident of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city.

Simba Makoni, an independent candidate who broke ranks with the ruling ZANU-PF party in February by declaring his presidential bid, and Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main group of the splintered Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are President Robert Mugabe’s chief opponents. The fourth presidential hopeful is another independent, Langton Towungana.

“Vote for Simba”, Makoni’s supporters SMS, while Tsvangirai’s faithful ask, “Have you not suffered enough? Morgan is the solution.”

Picture messages with Mugabe cartoons are a huge draw, but the most captivating novelty is an anti-Mugabe ringtone based on a local song, which asks in Shona: “How long will you vote for ZANU-PF?”. The ringtone has become a hit, according to Alfred Sibanda, who runs a small electronic services café in Bulawayo.

“Alongside my main business, I burn music … [write music to CDs] and we get at least 15 people per day who want the ringtone uploaded to their phones,” he said.

However, this may not always be wise. “Some people have returned to us, requesting that we remove it after clashing with government sympathisers,” Sibanda commented.

In ZANU-PF circles, messages extolling the party and Mugabe are doing the rounds. “Land to the people. Vote for president Mugabe”, says one. “Down with the opposition”, suggests another.

Political blogs are another popular campaign communications mode. “My blog’s feedback section is always brimming with responses from those sympathetic to Mugabe, Tsvangirai or Makoni, and some have sent me links to their blogs … The network cuts across the political divide,” said Busani Moyo, another Bulawayo resident.

The polls are crucial to Zimbabweans, as the almost dysfunctional economy has left them with an inflation rate of around 100,000 percent and widespread food shortages.

The recent endorsement of Makoni by ZANU-PF heavyweight Dumiso Dabengwa and two other former cabinet ministers has given the elections an interesting turn. John Makumbe, an anti-ZANU-PF political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, said it had improved Makoni’s chances, and “was a major blow for Mugabe”.

From our partner Irin

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