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Zimbabwe: Pushing for early polls

By Patrick Smith
Posted on Wednesday, 12 January 2011 17:30

Political powerplays over the date of Zimbabwe’s next election make it the last of our political flashpoints for 2011.

Read more on why Sudan is breaking up but stuck together and the Sahel is a stable as the desert sands. There are also regrets in the Democratic Republic of Congo after cosying up to the enemy.

Zimbabweans will be trooping to the polling booths at least twice in 2011, and this time their votes could emphatically change the country’s direction. National elections are not due until 2013, but all sides in the power-sharing government, frustrated with the growing list of political roadblocks, see advantages in an early vote. The main question is whether the planned polls will trigger a return to the horrendous levels of political violence meted out by militia groups loyal to President Robert Mugabe during the 2008 elections. After a much quieter 18 months, political attacks are increasing again, especially in the most contested areas, such as Midlands and Masvingo.

“It seems the government of national unity is reaching the end of its natural life,” according to Knox Chitiyo, the Africa director at the Royal United Services Institute in London. President Mugabe has said his preference would be to hold the referendum in February and then elections in July. Even if that schedule is too tight, there is wide support for both votes to be held in 2011. Trade unions and civic groups are making the loudest complaints, arguing that their demands for constitutional reform have been sidelined. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) faces a tougher battle than a year ago. The MDC made progress immediately after the implementation of the Global Political Agreement in February 2009 and the economy started to recover amid a wave of promised new investment. The MDC’s coalition with its adversaries in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) seemed to be getting results.

MDC loyalists are revising that view as their ministers have been out-manoeuvred in confrontations with their ZANU-PF counterparts. The MDC is still ahead in opinion polls, but the number of undecided voters is growing. Leading MDC politicians met in South Africa in October to review their strategy and raised alarms about losing support. They have also found that the South African president and chief mediator in Zimbabwe, Jacob Zuma, has proved far less effective in resolving disputes than they had hoped because he has concentrated on pressing issues at home.

Finance minister and MDC secretary general Tendai Biti’s suspension of the Zimbabwe dollar and increased financial scrutiny cut ZANU-PF’s grip on the economy and sources of patronage last year. Since then, ZANU-PF has revived its fortunes through links to the generals and mining companies operating in the Marange diamond fields, among the world’s richest.

Under the terms of the coalition agreement, MDC Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and President Mugabe are meant to share executive power. In practice, it has worked out differently, with Mugabe blocking the swearing-in of the MDC treasurer and deputy agriculture minister Roy Bennett, the approval of MDC appointees as provincial governors and the launching of a national land audit.

Mugabe and the military chiefs have easily circumvented the theoretical powers of the National Security Council, on which both the MDC and ZANU-PF are represented, to make policy on matters of public security.?

Instead of pushing for substantive security reform before the referendum and elections, Chitiyo thinks the MDC will try to strike a compromise with ZANU-PF and the generals. “The politicians have to answer the question about who will be responsible for public safety during the votes – and that includes those who say the police and the army should play no role in security.” No one thinks that the AU will accede to the MDC’s call for it to send peacekeepers to Zimbabwe.

One compromise on security might involve a deal on sanctions: the EU and the US would agree to suspend targeted sanctions against ZANU-PF politicians in exchange for a commitment from President Mugabe to allow independent election monitors from Southern Africa and beyond, perhaps even a return of a Commonwealth observer team. There is much scepticism about the plan’s viability, but the options are fast running out.

This article was first published in the December 2010-January 2011 edition of The Africa Report.