Zimbabwe is about to hold its first presidential election since an important new constitution was passed last month. That constitution introduces all sorts of stuff (freedom of expression, free media, etc.) that Zimbabweans have probably been hoping for since realizing that Robert Mugabe is a violent megalomaniacal spendthrift—not the most encouraging traits for a man ruling over a country where three-quarters of the population are living below the poverty line.
As part of the reforms, Zimbabwean leaders will now only be able to hold the presidency for a maximum of two five-year terms, as opposed to however long they are able to cling to the position by massacring people. But that clause doesn't apply retroactively, meaning Mugabe will be able to run in the elections once again. That, in turn, means that Zimbabweans are being overcome by a fresh wave of fear as they remember what happened the last time they had the gall to vote in what is supposedly a democratic country.
That was in 2008, when Mugabe lost the elections and was forced into a runoff vote with Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T. Mugabe isn't a man who likes to lose, so he had his ZANU-PF party unleash a tactic to "re-educate" the people through a campaign of torture, rape, and murder. Tsvangirai figured that he should probably drop out before Mugabe worked himself up into Gukurahundi massacre mood, leaving the democratic dictator to swear himself in as president for years 21 to 26 of his tenure. But his lack of support was so evident that, within months, Tsvangirai was invited to sign a power-sharing agreement.
Recently, in an awkward interview with HARDtalk on the BBC's World Service, the justice minister and Mugabe’s BFF Patrick Chinamasa made everyone very nervous by saying, “As a ZANU-PF official, I will not give the possibility that Tsvangirai will win.” So, to find out exactly what’s going on, I got ahold of the Free and Fair Zimbabwe Election (FFZE) campaign.
The organization has had problems with hacking and said that they couldn’t speak to anyone they haven’t met in person. But after a string of coded messages (and a lot of smiley emoticons), FFZE representative Barry Pates agreed to tell me exactly how ZANU-PF are going to stop Tsvangirai from winning this year's presidential election.
ZANU-PF have been raiding villages by night and confiscating radios. The radios were distributed by human rights organizations because they “are the only way rural communities can have an accurate idea of what's really happening in the country," Barry told me. "ZANU-PF knows this, which is why they did what they did.” However, ZANU-PF said they did it because the radios were being used to distribute hate-speech. Then they changed their minds and said the radios were illegally brought in as diplomatic cargo. Which was a much better excuse because it also allowed them to arrest loads of human rights monitors for illegally shipping in radios.
The worst part is that they’ve apparently been using kids to find and report radio owners. Barry said, “I couldn’t tell you for sure if these allegations are true, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Children have been exploited by ZANU in the past and, unfortunately, probably will be again. The youth militia has always been a crucial factor in ZANU’s intimidation tactics. Unfortunately, many of these children come from rural areas where they aren’t exposed to any external media and are brainwashed from an early age that ZANU-PF is the be-all and end-all of politics.”
Compulsory Night Meetings
All over Zimbabwe, people are being forced to attend compulsory night meetings by pro-Mugabe youths. Barry says, “ZANU-PF don’t have the support of a large majority of the people, so they have to resort to these kinds of tactics.” At the meetings, people’s details are taken and they’re considered ZANU-PF supporters. And if people don’t attend the meetings, they're marked down as possible "opponents" of Mugabe’s regime—tradtionally, opponents of Mugabe's regime haven't had the easiest of times in Zimbabwe.
A Zimbabwean victim of torture. Photo courtesy of Roy Bennett/Free Zimbabwe
Physical and Psychological Intimidation
Barry told me, “There have been rumors that [ZANU-PF] will use psychological propaganda. Rather than actually carrying out the violence we saw in 2008, they will remind the electorate subliminally of what happened then.” But the violence has started. Militias have already been deployed to drum up fear votes. The most publicized attack led to the death of 12-year-old Christpower Maisiri, the son of an aspiring MDC-T parliamentary candidate, who was burnt alive in his hut at the end of February.
“Unfortunately, this isn't the first case of a child dying because of political forces," Barry said. "Certain people have no boundaries when it comes to violence and have no problem harming women or children.”
Zimbabwe has also seen countless unwarranted arrests of many politically powerful people to “send a warning to the rest of the country.” Tsvangirai’s aides were arrested recently, and when prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa came to their rescue, they threw her in jail too. Beatrice is one of the nation's most inspirational figures and her arrest shocked the country, which is impressive considering everyone there is well accustomed to perpetual injustice after nearly 35 years of living under Mugabe's rule.
No one really seems to have a clue as to when the elections actually are. Mugabe wants them as soon as possible, but MDC-T want more time to get organized. They want to bring in more observers after ZANU-PF banned monitors from the EU and the US for imposing “unjust” sanctions on them. Barry explained, “The more time we have to bring in observers, the more likely it is that the election will be fair. If they are free and fair, at least to some extent, we have no doubt that ZANU-PF has no chance of regaining power.”
But even when/if they reach an agreement, the new constitution still needs to be passed in parliament, which will change a lot of the rules surrounding who gets to decide when the election is held.
Zimbabwe also recently announced a measly, almost unbelievable bank balance of $217, leading Finance Minister Biti to admit that they didn’t know how they were going to fund the elections. And it’s still a mystery. Barry thinks China might step up: “There have been reports in the media that the Chinese will fund the large majority of it. This would be alarming, as it’s widely known that many Chinese companies have been propping up the Mugabe regime in return for being able to extract the country’s rich reserves of diamonds and gold, among many other resources.” For example, if China helps fund the election, Mugabe's almost definitely got it in the bag.
So, is there anything to suggest that Tsvangirai stands a chance of winning the presidency? Barry explained that actually, there is: “This is the first election we've had since the so-called Arab Spring. And although it's likely that there'll be violence on some kind of scale, it's impossible that it will be anything like 2008. We are well aware that ZANU-PF is unlikely to go down without a fight. However, we think that the intimidation tactics used by ZANU in the past simply will not be as effective. Not only are people fed up with the current regime, but now they're able to communicate with others about it and report any violence they encounter to the rest of the world. 2013 is the best opportunity yet to have free and fair elections in Zimbabwe. The intimidation is coming to the end of its tether. There is only so much violence any population can take. ZANU-PF doesn't have the support of the people but continues to hold power because it controls the army and the police. However, eventually even these forces will turn against them and say, 'Enough is enough, we can't continue to harm innocent citizens for political gain.' That change will happen in 2013.”
I hope he’s right.