Opposition must destroy rural fear factor now

HARARE - The 2018 elections are taking place in a threatening environment hostile to free speech and genuine political participation, again raising the spectre of elections that will neither be free nor fair.

There is a massive wall of fear built for the rural people — who constitute 75 percent of the Zimbabwean voter bloc — by the ruling Zanu PF.

President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF is harvesting fear from the 2008 elections that killed over 200 people, with many set to vote for the ruling party out of fear after being made acutely aware that active involvement in politics, particularly on behalf of the opposition, could result in death.

Zanu PF has maintained control over the rural vote by directing ordinary voters to give their ballot-paper serial numbers to their village headmen, who would have marshalled the voters to the polling station and made them queue in a predetermined order, blatantly violating the sanctity of the vote.

This is where the election is stolen; forget the voter register, or unsubstantiated claims of ballot stuffing.

Intimidated villagers willingly vote for Zanu PF, and those who disobey this instruction are ruthlessly punished — commanded to sprawl on the ground, sometimes naked, then clobbered on the back, buttocks, the head, while some have their homes burnt or knocked down or told never to return to their villagers by Zanu PF youths — pumped up with beer, or marijuana.

Other defiant villagers are taken to re-education camps and castigated for their treachery and perfidy while suffering long nights of physical abuse and indoctrination.

The punishing militia also make a point of destroying IDs which certify the defiant villagers’ right to vote.

Richly rewarded headmen, who have by all intents and purposes now become agents of coercion and auxiliaries of Mugabe’s Zanu PF, are responsible for delivering a 100 percent victory for the 93-year-old president.

The headmen also face threats that their efforts at polling stations will be closely monitored.

Some of the rural voters such as teachers are clearly instructed to tell presiding officers that they were functionally illiterate, so that the police could monitor their choices while pretending to give assistance. There is also widespread politicisation of food aid by Zanu PF.

Under this electoral regime, rural voters have faced a world where silence was the only option.

Rural folk have chosen to live in obedience, in silence, well aware any dissent would be crushed.

It is not a democratic election if the ruling party controls all election-related institutions, the State media is a de facto organ of the ruling party, and opposition supporters face death threats from Zanu PF.  Under no standards anywhere can an election be deemed free or fair where these kinds of problems exist.

Senior Zanu PF officials repeatedly raise the spectre of “war” if the ruling party lost the election and senior members of the security forces campaign vigorously for Zanu PF.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has underscored that “persons entitled to vote must be free to vote for any candidate for election …and free to support or to oppose government, without undue influence or coercion of any kind which may distort or inhibit the free expression of the elector’s will.”

It is clear that the upcoming 2018 national elections will again be tightly contested, making it more important than ever to carry out urgent fundamental electoral reforms.

Methodological interventions should be deployed now to destroy the fear factor in rural areas. It is incumbent on the recently formed opposition alliance, as a matter of urgency, to destroy the fear factor, raise limitless poll expectations for villagers, and end suppression of rural folk.

The campaign to destroy the fear factor needs courage, not lily-livered politicians, and will certainly face harsh resistance from Zanu PF because it will be sufficient to put the survival of the worn-out Mugabe regime at stake.

It could take many forms, a mixture of the internal and external, the strategic and ideological; the escalation of opposition presence in rural areas to assure villagers that there will be no consequences for their electoral choices.

 

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