Blocked by tactics of terror

How should a democratic party respond to a government that uses any illegality to block the opposition?

WHAT DOES A democratic opposition party do when the incumbent regime uses unconstitutional and illegal means to retain power long after it has lost the confidence of voters?

Although President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party won a majority of seats in the June 2000 parliamentary election, it lost the popular vote. Most Zimbabweans voted against what they saw as an unaccountable and corrupt regime rooted in the nationalist dogmas of the past. Mortified by what he saw as a personal insult, Mugabe attempted to represent the outcome as a conspiracy by Western imperialists in league with local whites and "brainwashed" young blacks to thwart his revolutionary mission.

He therefore intensified land invasions and incorporated self-styled war veterans into the armed forces, thus placing them on the public payroll and legitimising their intimidation of rural voters ahead of a presidential poll due next year.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which came close to winning last year's general election, has sought through court applications to overturn results in 39 constituencies where intimidation and other violations of the Electoral Act have been recorded. Mugabe issued an edict nullifying those court actions, a strategy that although unlikely to succeed on appeal has managed to block for several months a legitimate review of electoral irregularities perpetrated by his followers.

Mugabe has pardoned those of his supporters who were liable to prosecution for election-related violence. He has ordered the police not to intervene against land invaders while the police commissioner has refused to obey court orders instructing him to remove squatters.

While the police have shown energy and determination in blocking democratic protests by civil society groups against violence and illegality, they have released individuals identified as responsible for murdering farmers, claiming a lack of evidence. Most cases have not even been investigated. That includes the bombing of the premises of the Daily News, an independent newspaper, government-incited attacks on journalists, and threats against the judiciary.

In this state of institutionalised lawlessness and terror, directed by the head of state and supported by the army and police, the opposition is hamstrung. With court actions blocked, a parliamentary impeachment motion delayed, and public protests suppressed before they can even manifest themselves, the opposition is in a fix.

In a recent by-election in Bikita West near Masvingo in the south of the country ministers told villagers that they had instructed headmen to record the names of those who voted and they would be able to tell from such a register how people cast their ballots. They would then "cleanse" the area of opposition supporters, the ministers said. Ministers have also said they would withhold seed-maize from people voting for the opposition. These threats have been matched with inducements to voters in the form of development projects that would be denied them if they voted for the opposition.

In addition to these abuses, the monolithic state-owned media, which includes a broadcasting monopoly, has persisted in representing the MDC as the Trojan horse of British imperialism.

Against this brick wall of hostile propaganda, criminality and abuse of power, the MDC has been ineffectively banging its collective head. Voters are unsurprisingly expressing frustration that nothing much has changed - except for the worse. Letters to the papers ask why the MDC has not achieved anything, a view that Zanu-PF is happy to exploit. Commentators have asked if the party is asleep after months of celebrating its June gains.

Paul Themba-Nyathi, the party's director of elections and a combative MP, says he is aware that newspapers are "littered with articles expressing disappointment, dismay and seeming anger of what the public perceives as the MDC's inertia and loss of direction". He says he shares the frustration that the MDC's electoral gains have not yielded positive change. "If anything, Zanu-PF has severely punished the country and the people of Zimbabwe for daring to express their democratic and constitutional rights," he told a local paper recently.

Themba-Nyathi admits that the MDC had underestimated Zanu PF's desire to retain power at whatever cost. This driving urge, he suggests, has at least exposed the nature of the beast. "Zanu-PF is banking on the fact that in relation to elections in Africa generally, devalued standards are used to measure the standards of such elections . . . Zanu-PF is a party of evil that hates democracy, despises pluralism, and will peddle racism and other obnoxious notions to cling to power.

"How can the MDC be expected," he asks, "to respond to a party whose electoral strategy blatantly unleashes violence on the electorate? Should we also employ gangs and traditional leaders, in violation of the Electoral Act, to herd people to the polls to vote at the threat of loss of life and privileges?" The ruling party has offered bribes, Themba-Nyathi points out. "Do we go in to offer more money which we do not have, or more threats that our moral standing and convictions find repugnant?"

On land it is said the MDC has no policy, he notes. But what passes for Zanu-PF policy "is a violent, illegal, disorderly and racist act whose sole purpose is to obliterate in people's memories Zanu-PF's 20 years of failure". Is the MDC expected to emulate that example, he asks? Should the MDC mobilise its supporters to enforce the rule of law and risk a civil war in the process?

This is the bind the MDC finds itself in, Themba-Nyathi admits. And all it can offer voters is light at the end of the tunnel when they vote mid-next year for a new (or very old) president. But the message is: hang in there. "Do not let your despair deny us the strength to resist evil," he urges.
Themba-Nyathi is one of the more experienced and level-headed MDC leaders. With distinguished liberation war credentials, he is familiar with Zanu-PF's byzantine power structure and clawing tenacity. Others are relative newcomers to the power game, having graduated from university in recent years. They expect immediate results and are only too keen to confront Zanu-PF's hired thugs on the township streets they know so well. Indeed, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai is under constant pressure from Young Turks for mass action.

But he calculates - almost certainly correctly - that Mugabe would use mass action as a pretext to unleash the army and Zanu-PF militiamen to crush the democratic forces altogether. Already war veterans have threatened to seize the premises of companies closing down during any protests. The MDC and other organisations struggling to establish democratic fundamentals in Zimbabwe have not been helped by explicit support given to Zanu-PF by other states in the region.

Focus 21, March 2001. Iden Wetherell is editor of the Zimbabwe Independent.