Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), said his party has yet to decide whether to participate in Zimbabwe's legislative elections, scheduled for March, as conditions in the country are not conducive to a free and fair poll.
Tsvangirai was addressing delegates at a conference on opposition parties and democracy in Africa at the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Given the number of reforms needed to ensure a free and fair election, he said, the parliamentary poll should be postponed to June.
The MDC was "damned if we do, and damned if we don't" participate in the March election. If the MDC participated in a ballot under the current conditions, it would be tantamount to "legitimising fraud"; if they chose not to participate, "you [could] become irrelevant", Tsvangirai commented.
The MDC leader outlined key impediments to the MDC participating in the poll: chief among them was the lack of democratic space for his party to campaign, and ongoing intimidation and politically motivated violence. Both previous legislative and presidential elections had been marred by "state-sponsored violence", and this would need to cease if the upcoming ballot were to be declared free and fair.
"People have lost confidence in the electoral process; they have experienced too many fraudulent elections, in which their vote has been meaningless. This has to change - the current electoral and political environment precludes a free and fair election," Tsvangirai alleged.
Curbs on holding public meetings were also affecting his party's ability to contest elections. "If we have a meeting with three or more people ... we have to ask permission from the police". Under the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), political parties have to obtain clearance from the police to hold a gathering.
The opposition party also had no access to state media and was therefore severely constrained in its ability to campaign effectively. However, the government has contended that because the opposition has not confirmed its participation in the ballot, it does not qualify for airtime.
After delivering his speech, Tsvangirai told the media he had been encouraged by recent comments by South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) that the MDC should be allowed to hold public meetings without having to apply for permission from the police.
"Any support ... is appreciated, but I don't know whether it will have any impact in the next two months [before the scheduled elections]. The government is going full throttle, regardless of comments from outside [the country]," Tsvangirai said.
Both the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) had a role to play in ensuring that member states adhered to principles and guidelines governing elections.
"Given the public policy and public position of SADC and the AU on freedom, liberty, equity, economic management, governance and democracy, one would have thought the two bodies could put together mechanisms for correction and sanction, should a member state deliberately sabotage these noble ideals," Tsvangirai observed.
"A new spirit has taken root in the SADC region, to deal with the question of elections. The [election] guidelines adopted in Mauritius last year [by SADC countries] give us a lot of hope and encouragement: they are not just SADC guidelines; they are universal requirements."
Zimbabwe, however, remained out of step with the thinking of the rest of the region, he alleged.
"The reforms that the government has made to the electoral laws, while a step in the right direction, are nowhere near sufficient. Significant reform measures are needed if the government is to comply with the new SADC benchmarks on democratic elections. From the MDC's perspective, the government needs to carry out the following, if credible elections are to take place: the disbanding of the youth militias and their complete removal from all constituencies; the repeal or amendment of all legislative provisions that infringe upon basic civil and political liberties; a comprehensive independent audit of the voters' roll, and for those who have been unable to register, to be able to do so; and access to the state media [for the opposition]," Tsvangirai explained.
It would take six months for these reforms to "have a meaningful impact on the electoral and political environment". The MDC was therefore advocating that the earliest that elections could take place would be the end of June 2005. "We want to participate, but we don't want to commit [political] suicide. Now the environment is very hostile, and they [government] are nowhere near [full] compliance with SADC guidelines," he noted.
The MDC was involved in ongoing consultations over whether or not it would contest the parliamentary elections, Tsvangirai said, and a decision would be made during executive and council meetings to be held from 2 to 3 February.
"It is imperative that we get this election right; that all stakeholders are comfortable with the conditions and processes under which the election is held," he stressed. "Another disputed election would be bad news for Zimbabwe, and bad news for the region."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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