Democracy on trial in Zimbabwe

The number of invitations to foreign observers to our July 30 harmonised elections is unprecedented. The number of presidential contestants is unprecedented, and so is the peaceful environment with just three weeks before the big day.

All the candidates in the presidential race are new; all 23 of them. By every reasonable measure, there has been a palpable transition from Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Unfortunately not from the toxicity of their legacy.

President Mnangagwa has been consistent since the day of his inauguration last November that he wants a peaceful, credible, transparent and free election. He has tried to be very accommodating of his political rivals.

Quite uncharacteristic of political contestation, it is his rivals who are on a dirty warpath. Playing quintessential Mugabe.

The foreigners have all been civil. They know their mission. So far they have shown they were aware from day one that they were not going into some idealist, fantasyland where everything works like the proverbial clock. They are aware they are dealing with humans.

They have done their best to remain as unobtrusive as possible. After all they came to observe, not to run or supervise the elections. Let’s give them credit for being decent guests. Question is: can they say the same of their hosts, especially the behaviour of the opposition?

We raise that question because we believe we are not the first country these election observers have been to; we are not likely to be the last, in Africa and beyond. Possibly some of them have been here before albeit in different portfolios, and they are keen to see if we have moved forward from the acrimonious wrangling of Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe. Some are keen to write a fair account of our politics and politicians. Are we showing the best of what Zimbabwe is capable of?

Across the board, most nations and organisations which have deployed observers to Zimbabwe no doubt want to take us seriously. They want to take our elections seriously. They have plans to engage fruitfully with whoever wins the elections. So as a nation we shall be judged for who we are by the outcome we give the world.

That is why they have deployed mature people, not excitable youth who take a beerhall brawl for political violence.

We are probably too close to the action to be a fair judge. What no fair judge cannot dismiss off hand, however, is that opposition parties, particularly the MDC Alliance led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa, seems to have been caught completely unprepared for democracy. They invested too much in this mantra, and had convinced themselves that they alone knew how to spell the word democracy. They can’t conceive of it being achieved without their agency.

Since coming into power, President Mnangagwa has made the democratic space as expansive as the ocean. Instead Chamisa, looking through Tsvangirai’s faded lenses, sees no change, no transition. He is even trying to find ways of collaborating with Mugabe in his fight against Mnangagwa. The same Mugabe the original MDC was launched to fight in 1999; the same Mugabe they claim has stolen elections from them since 2000. The same Mugabe they claim during the day that he ruled Zimbabwe with an iron hand and ruined the economy. Yes, today they see in that Mugabe a warrior with whom to join forces to fight for democracy against Mnangagwa. And foreign observers are watching all this Machiavellianism. How does one deal with such people when they are power?

But this love and desire to be a Mugabe goes deeper. The MDC Alliance presidential candidate seems to be studying Mugabe as his mentor. Listen to the fiery political language. The threats of violence through mass demonstrations. He is always the people. It doesn’t matter the size of the crowd he is addressing; they are always the only people. His word is the people’s.

Those who don’t attend or don’t agree with him don’t matter; they are not Zimbabweans, they are not people, they can’t be right. The crowd which stands in front of him doesn’t represent, but is the nation, all waiting to do his bidding. They can be ordered to march on to the streets and the country will come to a standstill. Those who don’t believe or support his cause don’t exist.

That’s from where we stand, right in the kitchen.

Legally, one marvels at the brinksmanship. The war with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is a salient example.

ZEC is an independent commission, a product of Zanu-PF and MDC Alliance partners. Its role is spelt out clearly in Section 239 of the Zimbabwe Constitution. But that has not stopped all the senior lawyers in the MDC Alliance hierarchy from making irritating and vexatious demands of it around the voters’ roll and ballot paper, including quality and printing, transportation and storage and safekeeping. In short, as a party, they want to usurp the functions of ZEC.

History teaches us that is how dictatorships are born and nurtured. Their ambitions can’t be contained within the law; the law must be elastic enough to allow their ambition to flourish. These are the same democrats who proposed several independent commissions in the 2013 Constitution to trammel the powers of the Executive.

They are now at the forefront of not only challenging the law, but trying to impugn ZEC chairwoman Justice Priscila Chigumba for colluding with the ruling Zanu-PF party and its presidential candidate Mnangagwa to rig the elections.

Robert Mugabe

They are out to discredit democracy, not the election.

Quietly, Mnangagwa has endured abuse by those who now see Mugabe as a good ally after the masses of Zimbabweans in November last year, declared they had had enough of him. They enjoy being where Mugabe was yesterday, but don’t appreciate that it’s the November 2017, transition which has allowed them to prance on the national stage unperturbed — a transition engineered by a military they love to revile.

But even more, the Zimbabwean people are being defrauded. The opposition is spending more time in the courts fighting ZEC and blackmailing the people through threats of violence if it doesn’t win, instead of selling policies. It is Mnangagwa who has opened the democratic space and is appealing for greater investment to build a truly black-owned economy. What is the opposition selling beside fear and national instability?

President Mnangagwa almost nailed it this week. He said his Government had taken all necessary measures to ensure a free and fair election. However, he said; “I am aware of little political parties that are afraid of elections. They get frightened by democracy, but democracy has come to stay in this new dispensation. We allow people to have freedom of speech and we guarantee that this election shall be free, fair, transparent and credible, peaceful and non-violent.”

The little political parties have responded by threatening demonstrations next week to force ZEC to violate the law by doing what’s ultra vires its mandate — allowing them to supervise and oversee the printing of the ballot paper. They are taking advantage of people’s ignorance of the law to masquerade as the interpreters.

Question once again is: can such people be trusted to respect the constitution once they control the levers of State power? For here we confront at close quarters the risk of power becoming an end in itself.

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