With the new constitution having been overwhelmingly approved, Zimbabwe can start to prepare for fresh elections – the first since the fateful polls in 2008.
Back then, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) won the first round to set up a run-off against incumbent Robert Mugabe of the ruling ZANU-PF party.
Citing violence and intimidation against supporters, however, Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round allowing Mugabe to emerge victorious.
Amidst international condemnation and instability following the disputed elections, however, ZANU-PF held mediated talks with the MDC-T and MDC-M – a breakaway faction of the MDC then led by Arthur Mutambara – resulting in a power-sharing government under the provisions of the Global Political Agreement (GPA).
Mugabe stayed as president, Tsvangirai became prime minister, and government ministries were shared out between the three main parties.
Now, with the coalition government’s mandate to end on 29 June – and elections to be held by 29 August 2013 according to the GPA – Zimbabwe faces the prospect of elections again.
Yet crucial questions remain about whether it is ready. The European Union (EU), which recently eased sanctions purportedly as a reward for political progress, appears to think so.
Many also appear to have been encouraged by the broadly peaceful referendum on the new constitution. But unfortunately, this optimism does not stand up to scrutiny.
From its inception, the coalition government has squabbled over how much reform is necessary before satisfactory elections can take place.
ZANU-PF has insisted that there is no need for reform – not surprising given its chances of retaining power rest on maintaining status quo – while opposition and civil society insist extensive reforms are crucial.
Past Zimbabwean elections have often been characterised by ZANU-PF violence against opposition.
Before the 1985 parliamentary elections, the Mugabe regime had been unleashing the infamous Gukurahundi policy against the supporters of Zimbabwe African People’s Union-Patriotic Front (ZAPU-PF), resulting in the deaths of thousands; in 1990, Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM), a party that provided a formidable challenge to ZANU-PF, faced widespread intimidation and violence; and in the 1996 elections, the two main opposition parties, Abel Muzorewa’s United Parties (UP) and Ndabaningi Sithole’s Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-Ndonga), withdrew citing irregularities and intimidation of supporters.
When the MDC emerged in 1999 and seemed to have a genuine chance of unseating ZANU-PF, the ruling party again resorted to physical force. The presidential elections of 2002 and 2008 in particular were marred by violence and the deaths of hundreds.
Many are hoping that 2013’s election will break with this history of violence. But despite a new constitution, the political landscape is far from reformed.
Firstly, while there have been repeated calls for peace by government leaders, there is still widespread state-sponsored political violence directed at civil society, human rights defenders, journalists, and political activists.
Indeed, there has been an upsurge in political violence and repression lately.
Secondly, groups of liberation war veterans and ZANU-PF youths, who were responsible for much of the torture and abuse perpetrated against civilians in the run-up to the last two elections, remain intact.
These groups also contributed to the infringement of rights to freedoms of expression, assembly and association.
Thirdly, the media in Zimbabwe remains muzzled. There are very few privately-owned newspapers and radio stations. This has meant that public information remains under the firm grip of ZANU–PF, which continues to use state-owned media to manipulate public opinion.
Fourthly, and most significantly, the security sector is still deeply involved in the political affairs of the country. Despite Article XIII of the GPA clearly stipulating that “state organs and institutions do not belong to any political party and should be impartial in the discharge of their duties”, ZANU-PF has retained control of the security apparatus, the ultimate line of defence of its dominance.
This raises fears that this year’s elections could lead to a repeat of 2008’s when ZANU-PF, in partnership with the “securocrats”, thwarted a democratic transfer of power. Senior military personnel have been quoted on several occasions openly supporting Mugabe and ZANU-PF, and vowing to enable it to stay in power, flouting the GPA and the codes of conduct of their own establishments.
Meanwhile, the Southern Africa Development Community’s (SADC) calls to reform the military, police services, state intelligence services and other critical arms of the security sector have fallen on deaf ears.
At its December 2009 party congress, ZANU-PF boasted that it would not allow security forces to be subject to reforms.
Last but not least, it appears the coalition government has also failed to make any changes to repressive laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
These laws have been used to severely curtail basic rights through vague defamation clauses and draconian penalties.
In the few cases where there have been reforms, the quality and extent of those reforms have been minimal.
For example, the newly created Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission could help improve the condition of human rights, but its mandate is limited to investigating and reporting on human rights abuses committed after the unity government was formed in February 2009, thus excluding the widespread electoral violence of 2008.
The draft constitution has also been criticised as flawed and as not going far enough in its curbing of presidential powers and bolstering of human rights.
The answer as to why the coalition has failed to put into effect political and electoral reforms lies partly in the distribution of power within the unity government.
Unlike Kenya’s transitional government in which executive power was shared between President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, allowing some key reforms to be undertaken, in Zimbabwe, Mugabe never relinquished executive power and has thus been able to block required reforms.
Additionally, securocrats have used their positions and symbiotic relationship with Mugabe to veto change.
ZANU-PF’s triumph has also been aided by the opposition’s poor strategising and various miscalculations.
For example, the opposition went into the coalition government without a plan to ensure reforms would be made. This was a product of their failure to calculate the limitations of their power within the power-sharing agreement.
They also mistakenly counted on ZANU-PF as a reliable partner that they could do business with.
Finally, President Mugabe has also shrewdly manipulated the issue of sanctions as a way of frustrating possible progress.
In response to human rights and election-related abuses perpetrated between 2001 and 2008, the US and EU imposed targeted sanctions as a way to push reform.
ZANU-PF, however, turned this pressure on its head – leading to a stalemate – by saying reforms would only be undertaken once the sanctions are removed.
When ZANU-PF went into the coalition government, its priority was to retain political power. Its strategy was to use the power-sharing agreement to entrench its hegemonic status without frightening those in the international community.
The opposition meanwhile seemed to enter Zimbabwe’s brutal political scene without a strategy, but armed with unrealistic political notions, such as its preoccupation with legality.
The result of these divergent interests has been perpetual political dispute that rendered the coalition government unable to introduce reforms that would have created a level political playing field.
Having been unable to secure reforms in the last four years, it might be too late to expect any meaningful change before elections if they are indeed to be held in June.
It thus appears the elections will have to be fought on an unequal battleground.
Though this might sound like bad news for the opposition, and worse for democracy-loving Zimbabweans, it does not have to be.
Attaining democracy in Zimbabwe is still possible, but requires a new approach that has less to do with the currently impossible task of political reform.
Once the opposition acknowledges the reality – that for the moment attaining political reforms is a dream – they can let go of the notion that the political playing field will be level come the elections.
Once they have accepted this, they can be liberated from complacency and launch a harder and more direct campaign.
As it is, resounding electoral victory, to the extent President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF cannot cover it up, is now the only way to power.
By Simukai Tinhu -Tinhu has a background in International relations (London School of Economics) and African Politics (University of Oxford and University of Cambridge). His interests are risk analysis with a special focus on African countries.
This article was reproduced with permission from Think Africa Press