Webcast Recap

On May 28th, 2008 the Africa Program and the Enough Project co-sponsored an event entitled "Zimbabwe: The Presidential Run-Off and its Implications," held at the Wilson Center on the topic of the March 29th Zimbabwean election and prospects for the runoff vote on June 27th. Unanimous agreement was reached amongst panelists that Zimbabwe is facing the most urgent crisis on the continent today. Howard Wolpe, director of the Africa Program at the Wilson Center, served as moderator to the four outstanding panelists: Jamal Jafari, Senior Peace Fellow with Public International Law and Policy Group (PILPG) and a consultant for the Enough Project, Dileepan Sivapathasundaram, Senior Program Officer at the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Ray Choto, Senior Editor with Zimbabwean Broadcasting Project at Voice of America, and Gayle Smith, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Co-Chair of the Enough Project.

Jafari began by briefly recounting the manner in which the ZANU-PF, Mugabe's party, operates. Leading up to the election, numerous scare tactics and intimidation measures were conducted, particularly in overwhelmingly rural areas that were previous ZANU-PF strongholds but have turned more towards the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The several days immediately before the election, the ZANU-PF played clean and kept a low profile. In reality, the ZANU-PF craves legitimacy and a true vote, especially in hopes of subduing international criticism. In the process, they have tried to consolidate power by accessing the Protection and Privacy Act, which greatly restricts any opposition group to hold meetings and enforces media and press to apply for registration. Because the ZANU-PF systematically follows this tactical format, few Zimbabweans have a complete understanding of competing political platforms. The lack of electronic and print media readily available in rural areas also plays a role in keeping the general population politically uninformed.

When the MDC came on the scene in 1999-2000, the party was very much a minority group. After the lead and arguable subsequent win in the March 29 election, they have become a majority ruling party. This includes control over the Parliament, which is absolutely unprecedented. There is thus a real possibility, or in fact likelihood, that the MDC will garner more votes in the run-up election set to be held June 27th. This election, as have been most blatantly witnessed, has proven that the ZANU-PF is not indestructible. The ZANU-PF was not expecting violence and intimidation in concert with an extremely dismal economic situation - inflation was running at about one million percent. To contest the election, the MDC would need about four quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars to print ballots and deploy election officials. These extreme economic conditions, coupled with inflation, enticed the populace to react differently and more aggressively, demanding change and a better standard of living.

Sivapathasundaram believes that in this election, political fissures within ZANU-PF were public and more apparent in the media than ever before. Released data, particularly from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, has made an influential difference in pushing the ZANU-PF regime toward accepting the results of the election, making this round categorically unique. This has provided Zimbabwe with some semblance of information. The goal would extend this semblance of information to open dialogue and more political space within the next month. Dileepan stressed the importance of posting results outside each polling station to maintain a high level of transparency, particularly in rural zones. The political landscape of the ZANU-PF is evidence of a fear of failure. Their response as of late, has been referred to as ‘electoral cleansing' by the international community. This entails targeting the ZANU-PF opposition group and areas of MDC support with harsher repression and systematic violence. In the past, violence has mostly remained within Harare and bigger cities. Now, levels of repression and crackdown are more systematic and are occurring more often in rural provinces than ever before. Civic partners have provided lists of people that are being targeted, moving from solely political parties to civic groups like the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, whose offices were subsequently raided and workers detained by ZANU-PF members. Displaced families are moving into the safety of South Africa, but after recent anti-immigration violence, these Zimbabweans are left without a safe haven. Dileepan asks what is the threshold ZANU-PF is willing to reach to stop the harassment of citizens, especially women and children. Beside the concern of protecting citizens, particularly in the rural areas, there is a worry that Zimbabweans, based on violence they have previously experienced, will be deterred to return to their displaced provinces to vote.

Choto provided a media perspective not widely known outside of Zimbabwe. He pointed out the act of militarization currently taking place on local levels, with a strong infiltration of deploying military members into the provinces. Choto also pointed out the lack of human capacity to monitor every polling station, roughly numbering 4000, in the southern country. Teachers that, by majority, presided and monitored over the March 29th election are too scared to return to polling stations, forcing governmental militia to replace them. And even though pockets of the country remain quite volatile, there is little media coverage to inform the general public.. ZANU-PF abducts a number of opposition party members at night, attempting to isolate rural areas during the process through scare tactics and other measures intended to intimidate. With very little media coverage, concerns over who is going to protect these people are being raised.

Smith detailed regional implications and U.S. perspectives, insisting that greater efforts be made to cover updates in the United States media. Despite references to Zimbabwe as a previous ‘anchor state,' having a relatively functioning economy, robust civil society, and strong institutions, she maintained, we must now come to accept that transitional democracy can be grossly underestimated in terms of achieving a smooth transition. In the process, we must continue to condemn Mugabe and contemplate possible sanction increases. Smith also pointed out that we must be aware of alternative outcomes, such as an eventual win for the MDC, in which case a plan B would have to be envisaged. The government could come out with greater reprisals than before. Smith emphasized a lack of a ‘Plan B,' so to speak, particularly in regards to the protection of civil society. Africa has always been seen as last priority on the US foreign policy spectrum. President Bush spoke in his National Security Speech in 2002 on how weak states pose greater threats to the international community than strong states, but six years later we still do not have a strategy in dealing with weak and failing states. Zimbabwe has been declining for fifteen years under an oppressive Mugabe stronghold. American diplomacy has tended to assume that African blocs like the African Union and SADC hold monolithic views. Our diplomacy has ignored divergent opinions of the Southern African community, resulting in a tragically inefficient strategy to aid the crisis. Regardless, this situation has exposed the fragility of southern African politics. The international community's silence when it comes to condemning Mugabe simply reinforces the message that there is "no serious issue."

Drafted by Molly Wilkin, Intern, and Mame-Khady Diouf, Program Assistant, Africa Program