The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) could sink into political oblivion if it boycotts next year’s elections.
More than half of its supporters feel that the party should contest the elections because electoral reform is a process and not an event.
They believe that the MDC’s participation in elections acts as a bulwark against total dominance by ZANU-PF and guarantees that ZANU-PF is kept on its toes.
According to an independent survey whose results were released last week, most people felt that although elections were important only when carried out in a democratic way, the MDC’s responses to the current ZANU-PF initiatives could be better.
“The tight ZANU-PF control notwithstanding, the MDC needs to find alternative means to get its message across,” the survey said. “It is apparent that ZANU-PF will not voluntarily give up on its hold.”
The MDC decided in August to boycott all pending elections until the government abides by the principles and guidelines for democratic elections agreed to by the Southern African Development Community.
Though the guidelines are not legally binding, they advocate for an independent electoral commission, access to the state media by all parties, and freedom to campaign, among others.
The government has already tabled an Electoral bill that will set up an election commission but the chairman, it appears, will be appointed by the President.
It has also agreed to have transparent ballot boxes and to have voting over a single day, but critics say these concessions are not enough.
The survey, which was carried out by the Mass Pubic Opinion Institute in August, has some startling revelations which seem to imply that ZANU-PF has already bagged in the elections.
It showed, for example, that 37 percent of the electorate was not registered as voters. The bulk of those not registered were aged 18-24, the group from which the MDC draws the majority of its support.
The older groups who are likely to be more loyal to ZANU-PF were registered. Only 36 percent of those aged 18-24 years were registered while 88 percent of those aged 45-54 years and 80 percent of those over 55 years were registered.
Despite protests that electoral reforms so far agreed to by ZANU-PF are inadequate, 83 percent of the people surveyed were not aware of the reforms. This applied even to urban areas where information flows more rapidly. In Harare only 33 percent were aware while in Bulawayo a paltry 19 percent was aware.
Though the government has already decided that Zimbabweans living abroad will not be allowed to vote, 66 percent of those surveyed said they should be allowed. The survey showed that even in provinces that are predominantly ZANU-PF a majority supported postal votes.
“This is very confusing because the government is asking them (Zimbabweans living abroad) to contribute to homelink but will not give them the vote,” Tulani Sithole, one of the coordinators of the survey, said. “In other words, what the government is saying is that they are citizens in one aspect and non-citizens in another.”
Another blow to the MDC could that while the party has been advocating for voting over a single day, 76 percent of the people were against the idea.
Compilers of the survey felt that people were convinced that the government did not have the capacity to ensure that voting could be completed in a single day.
The survey indicated that while most people supported the idea of counting ballot papers at polling stations, observers were afraid that this could lead to a rise in intimidation because it would be easier for ZANU-PF to identify which villages or areas had voted against them. People from these areas could thereafter be denied either food or development.
The same applied to transparent ballot boxes. While people supported them, others were afraid these boxes would not guarantee the secrecy of their vote.
One interviewee even said: “If your ballot paper unfolds inside the box, everyone will see who you would have voted for.”
Observers said this could be used as an intimidatory tactic by ZANU-PF because if people were afraid that party cadres could identify who they had voted for when they were using wooden boxes, what more when they were transparent.
While admitting that the playing field was not level, most people said the MDC should not boycott the elections. “The provincial analysis shows that even in provinces considered opposition strongholds such as Harare and Bulawayo, the view is the same,” the survey said.
The survey showed that 64 percent of the people were against the boycott. Among respondents who indicated that they supported the opposition 56 percent said they were against the boycott. Sixty-seven percent of ZANU-PF supporters were against the boycott.
“Most people are against the boycott because they consider the MDC to be a durawall of some sort that tends to hem in ZANU-PF when it gets carried away,” Sithole said.
A member of the National Constitutional Assembly said: “What worries most people is: What will the MDC do if it decides to go ahead with the boycott? It can become irrelevant. It has no other arena to air its views outside Parliament. Is there a plan B?”