Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe is not used to losing. The wily septuagenarian is using every trick in the book to make sure that the popular trade union-backed opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), does not win a majority at the June 24-25 general elections.
Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party will be very difficult to dislodge because — even before it resorts to irregularities and violence — Zimbabwe's political system gives the ruling party considerable advantages.
Only 120 of the 150 parliamentary seats are elected. The president appoints the remaining 30. The MDC will have to win at least 76 seats to topple ZANU-PF, while ZANU-PF can make do with holding 46 to survive.
Zimbabwe's electoral boundaries are weighted to favour rural electorates, where ZANU-PF has traditionally had the most support, and underrepresent urban voters, who are expected to overwhelmingly support the MDC.
The electoral commission is headed by a ZANU-PF stalwart. As many as 25% of the names on the voting lists have moved away or died. Many of the dead will rise from their graves to cast a vote for ZANU-PF on the polling days.
When the election dates were announced on May 15, a commission charged with redrawing the electoral boundaries and updating the electoral roll had not yet issued its report. While opposition candidates were required to nominate before May 29, they were unable to do so because they did not know which seats they would be able to stand in or whether the people signing their nomination forms were residents of the appropriate electorate.
The MDC won a court order for the nomination period to be extended to June 3. When the final boundaries and electoral roll were finally released on May 24, the MDC charged that boundaries had been drawn so as to dilute urban seats, with big chunks of rural areas and the number of city seats reduced.
The party also alleged that many known MDC supporters — including at least one candidate — and sections of the population suspected of sympathising with the opposition had been excluded from the roll. In one case, a married couple found themselves in different electorates. "One wonders if the constituency boundary runs through the matrimonial bed", quipped MDC candidate David Coltart.
State-owned newspapers, radio and television make no pretence at even-handedness.
Despite the institutional head start his party enjoys, Mugabe is not underestimating the threat the MDC poses to his 20-year rule. In February, the MDC was able to mobilise its overwhelming support from workers, students, unemployed and the poor in the cities, and its strong support among farm workers in the countryside, to defeat a constitutional referendum that would have extended Mugabe's undemocratic presidential powers. It was Mugabe's first significant electoral defeat.
It prompted him to launch occupations of some white Zimbabweans' big plantations in a desperate ploy to revive ZANU-PF's fading support among the millions of land-hungry and landless peasants. The occupations are also cover for ZANU-PF thugs to crush the MDC's support networks and attempts to organise outside the cities.
At least 23 MDC supporters, members and officials have been murdered by ZANU-PF goons since February. The MDC has counted almost 6000 separate cases of "state-sponsored violence" against its supporters.
ZANU-PF violence has made it almost impossible for the MDC to campaign openly outside the cities. Even in the cities, MDC rallies are regularly attacked. Police have persistently refused to intervene.
From the beginning, ZANU-PF thugs have particularly targetted farm workers on the large plantations, many of whom are members of the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union. The GAPWU is affiliated to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, which provides the core of the MDC leadership.
Mugabe and ZANU-PF know that the votes of the estimated 400,000 black farm workers will be decisive in rural constituencies. It is estimated that farm workers and their family members account for 20% of eligible voters.
Since February, more than 30,000 farm workers have fled to the cities. Once they leave the constituencies in which they have registered, unless they return on a polling day, they will be unable to cast a vote. If they register to vote in the cities, it will simply swell the MDC's majority in those seats and have little impact on ZANU-PF.
Attacks on working class
More recently, ZANU-PF goons have begun to attack other members of the rural working class — teachers, nurses, civil servants, shop workers and industrial workers in country towns. Dozens of schools have been closed. Martin Mukanyi, assistant secretary of the Zimbabwe Teachers Association, told the AFP press agency on May 10 that teachers are being "hunted down for supporting opposition parties".
Health workers are afraid to treat bashed MDC supporters for fear that they also will be assaulted. In the eyes of ZANU-PF, workers who are trade union members, have an education or simply have a job are likely to support the MDC. Many of these workers have also left for the cities.
The worst violence is taking place in Matebeleland in the south, where support for the MDC is strong. ZANU-PF thugs have threatened rural people with the relaunch of the gukurahundi — the Mugabe regime's early 1980s campaign of violence and repression against the minority Ndebele people and the Zimbabwe African People's Union which resulted in the massacre of up to 20,000 people — should the region elect MDC MPs.
As the polling days near, violence is increasing in the cities. In early May, 200 "war veterans" raided the workplace and workers' quarters of the Zimbabwe Fertiliser Factory. Workers were beaten and their homes destroyed. A week earlier the "veterans" had demanded that the owners sack the more than 300 workers because they supported the MDC and that ZANU-PF supporters be employed in their place.
ZANU-PF thugs are going door-to-door in the working-class townships of Harare and Bulawayo demanding that residents present ZANU-PF membership cards. Those who do not have one, cannot afford to "buy" one or express support for the MDC are threatened or beaten. Residents are forced to attend ZANU-PF rallies.
Nicholas Ndebele, chairperson of the human rights watchdog Zimrights, pointed out: "You judge a free and fair election by the process leading to the elections. Right now the process has been littered with deaths, injuries. People are displaced. People have run away from their homes. They are refugees in their own country."
It is far from certain that Mugabe's bully boy tactics will pay off, however. Trevor Muko, a shop worker from the town of Goromonzi, 30 kilometres from Harare, who narrowly escaped a beating when a band of ZANU-PF thugs went on a rampage in the town centre on May 17, told Zimbabwe's Financial Gazette: "What they don't realise is that beating us up will just harden us. During the liberation struggle, people were beaten up [by the white minority's security forces] and some had relatives killed but they still supported ZANU-PF [in the 1980 election]. Now the tables have turned against the ruling party."
BY NORM DIXON