Zimbabwe at a crossroads

Pierre Schori, Head of EU Election Observation Mission in Zimbabwe, tells of the voting

Socialist Affairs, Issue 1 / Volume 49, 2000

As Europeans we are confronted on an almost daily basis with the new dimensions of European security. That is all very important but as socialists we must also see that the broader, global agenda is included in that discussion. Today security and solidarity are two sides of the same coin, as can be exemplified very concretely by my experience from Zimbabwe.

In my view, the mission was a commitment to the people of Zimbabwe and to democracy worldwide; a natural consequence of our support for the struggle for African independence and of our wish to build a strong partnership with a peaceful and democratic Zimbabwe.

The policy of that partnership, developed over the years in close co-ordination with Zimbabwe and other African partners, is to uphold the principles of democracy, to strengthen the rule of law, to promote social and economic development and to encourage good governance and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. In Zimbabwe and elsewhere, programmes are designed to support civic organisations, freedom of the media as well as to strengthen the capacities of governments and judiciaries to deal with human rights issues.

Our commitment to that partnership is based on solidarity but also on the notion that without respect for these values there can be no sustainable development in Zimbabwe and therefore no genuine peace and stability in Southern Africa as a whole. In today's interdependent world an isolated development is no longer an option.

This was the reason why I unexpectedly found myself in Harare on 31 May as Head of the EU Election Observation Mission one day after the decision was taken by the Union.

A few days later when we had our office and computers running and had announced our presence to government ministers, opposition leaders, parliamentary candidates, election officials, civic and church organisations, the observers arrived. These were very experienced people, with an average of seven earlier observation missions. Some were diplomats or parliamentarians but most of them were teachers, social workers, police officers, nurses or civil servants. Many with a background from the solidarity movement for Southern Africa started as observers at the first free elections in Namibia 1989 or in South Africa 1994. Since then, whenever there is a need, they are prepared to leave their ordinary jobs at short notice for Bosnia, Cambodia or, in this case, Zimbabwe. After a three-day training and orientation course in Harare, they were deployed around the country. They were generally given a warm welcome and linked up closely with domestic monitors. Their presence noticeably helped to calm political tensions.

It was clear from the beginning that these elections would be very different from any other in Zimbabwe's short history. For the first time since Robert Mugabe led the country to independence and democracy in 1980, his Zanu PF party faced a strong opponent - the only ten-month-old Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The fast rising support for the opposition had many reasons. Since Zanu PF gained 117 of 120 contested seats in Parliament 1995, its popularity has declined. Economic recession, high inflation, rising unemployment, petrol shortages, power cuts, corruption and mismanagement have produced a groundswell of discontent. President Mugabe's decision to send armed forces to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo aroused strong resentment. Civic organisations, led by the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a network of NGOs campaigned for constitutional reform, notably a reduction in the powers of the president.

Last year, when the government finally embarked upon a process of reform, the constitutional commission proposed some important reforms but failed to recommend any significant change in the president's powers. The president subsequently used his powers controversially to gazette an amendment to the draft constitution allowing land expropriation without compensation.

In the following referendum campaign during January and February 2000, the constitutional commission, the government and Zanu PF all supported a "Yes' vote in favour of the draft constitution facing a coalition between the NCA and opposition parties including the newly-formed MDC. The campaign was notable for the extent of open political activity that occurred. The government and Zanu PF relied heavily on propaganda through radio, television and government-controlled newspapers. The MDC held numerous meetings across the country and achieved a high degree of visibility. Only a few violent clashes were reported. The surprise result was that 54 per cent of the electorate voted to reject the draft constitution while 46 per cent voted in favour. The campaign for the June parliamentary election started soon after.

In this campaign, Zanu PF focused on the land issue. Its main slogan was: 'Land is the Economy and Economy is Land'. Mugabe promised to accelerate the occupation of white-owned farmland started by war veterans in February 2000. He also pledged rapid black economic empowerment and further government measures to control the economy, including price controls. He focused most of his attacks on Britain, the former colonial power.

The MDC concentrated on Zimbabwe's economic crisis, accusing the government of mismanagement, corruption, cronyism and ruinous involvement in a foreign war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its main slogan was: 'It's time for change'. The MDC advocated an orderly land reform programme; a market economy; and a swift rapprochement with the IMF, the World Bank, Western governments and foreign investors.

The election campaign was marred by high levels of violence and intimidation. An assessment of political violence since February 2000 made by our mission, together with reports from our observers deployed across the country since early June, attributed the bulk of political violence to Zanu PF. The evidence showed that the party was engaged in a systematic campaign of intimidation aimed at crushing support for opposition parties. Studies made by other independent organisations supported these results.

Key groups of the electorate whom Zanu PF deemed to be opposition supporters were targeted by war veterans and other party supporters operating from bases on white-owned farms they had invaded, from militia camps in other rural areas and from government and party offices in rural towns.

Farm labourers on white-owned farms across the country were threatened and abused, forced to attend party meetings and taken off to re-education camps. Thousands of incidents of assault, torture, abduction and rape were recorded. Several prominent MDC organisers were murdered.

Other key groups that were targeted by Zanu PF included teachers, nurses and civil servants. More than 7,000 teachers fled their homes, forcing 250 primary and secondary schools to close.

In campaign speeches, Zanu PF leaders seemed to sanction the use of violence and intimidation against political opponents and contributed substantially to the climate of fear that overshadowed the election campaign. Calls for peaceful campaigning and efforts to restrain party supporters, including war veterans, were often ambiguous. The police frequently witnessed violence and intimidation, but appeared to be under instructions not to intervene.

MDC supporters were also engaged in violence and intimidation, but the degree of their responsibility for such activities was far less. Moreover, MDC leaders were clearer in their condemnation of violence.

From the beginning I realised that the assessment of the elections would be a delicate matter. Obviously, the violent pre-election campaign should strictly speaking rule out that the elections could be free and fair but such a narrow judgement could at the same time lead to a possible isolation of the country and its citizens who clearly wanted change. During our mission I therefore refused to use the term "free and fair elections", because it was not applicable, it was too blunt an instrument in such a complex process as the one in Zimbabwe.

Our hope was that despite the extensive violence and intimidation campaign, the people, aided by a large international and national monitoring presence, could cast there votes in a relatively free, fair and non-violent environment on election days. It is not that we were partisan, we had our code of conduct of professionalism and strict neutrality, but my public message was that the people should feel that their vote was secret, that on election day the peasant is equal to the president, that democratic elections are the power of the people.

Our mission, which had the twofold mandate to come up with a clear judgement on the electoral process and to contribute to a more favourable climate for the elections, therefore stressed from the beginning that we were there not only for the election process but that our final report would also attach great attention to the post-election phase.

And in this phase I made a point of that the role and responsibility of President Mugabe, whose mandate lasts another two years, was crucial. I underlined this in a conversation I had with him as well as in my public statements in Zimbabwe, saying that after revolution comes nation-building, after elections comes reconciliation.

To some extent, that strategy was successful. It is easy to agree with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai's dry comment after the voting was over: "These were not perfect elections". Indeed, in the view of our 190 observers, the pre-election period was one of the worst, while the actual election days were among the best they had seen. It was really a schizophrenic picture, where, on one hand, politically-motivated violence took over 30 people's lives and left many more threatened, persecuted, injured, raped and tortured, but, on the other, voters turned out nevertheless in record numbers giving the new opposition party almost half of the total vote.

Zimbabwe now stands at a crossroads. The people will expect the new government to act on their behalf with wisdom and foresight. The scale of the challenges that Zimbabwe currently faces requires all leaders to cooperate in order to re-establish the rule of law, respect for democracy and peace in the country and in the region.

In an address to the nation shortly after the election result was announced, President Mugabe indeed struck a conciliatory note. He called for national unity "across race, tribe, ethnicity, across regions, across class". The election results, he said, "bind us all, loser and winner alike". He expressed his willingness to work with the new parliament.

The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, spoke in a similar tone, promising to work constructively with the government. Despite the fact that the MDC would challenge the results in some constituencies where it alleged that irregularities had occurred the MDC said it accepted the results of the election. This enabled both the government and the MDC to appeal for calm and order amongst their supporters. Political tensions swiftly subsided. The overall consequence has been to enable both the government and the opposition to plan their future strategies in an orderly environment.

The new government must now move swiftly to allow the police and prosecution services to act against those who have been involved in, or encouraged, political violence or other human rights abuses and to solve the issue of land reform. Recently, there have in fact been indications that Zanu PF wants to embark on an orderly land reform, but also, however, that disappointed war veterans might start to act independently.

We who want to see a prosperous Zimbabwe playing its rightful role in Africa and in the world should make a particular effort during the coming months to follow events in the country closely; to invite the new government to open discussions on future global and regional cooperation; and to provide assistance and support where appropriate.

Our capacity for dialogue during this critical post-election phase can at the same time be seen as a test of our commitment to the idea of partnership. Now words must be met with deeds.

To sum up, with proper follow-up, election observation missions are indeed true acts of solidarity as well as effective conflict-prevention exercises, if they look at the whole election period including the pre-, and post-, election phases, if they keep the long-term development perspective and and if they work closely with the people and with civil society. We should therefore increase our readiness to send observer missions and develop stronger international cooperation between the UN, the EU, the OSCE, International IDEA and other relevant organisations. There is also a clear need for political discussion about the objectives and implementation of election observation where we as socialists should take the lead.



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