SA opposition concerned over election freedom

First hand reports from Democratic Alliance (DA) representatives on the SADC observer mission to Zimbabwe have  underscored grave concerns about the prospects of the election being free and fair.

This is the message from Tony Leon, former leader of the party who is now Foreign Affairs spokesperson.

“Our electoral observers, Dianne Kohler-Barnard MP and James Masango MP have pointed to the fact that the odds are heavily stacked against the 29th March poll being genuinely democratic. This assessment is backed up by the evidence contained in a number of different briefings given to SADC observers in Zimbabwe over the last five days”, he said.

Leon said the briefings have identified the following key issues as hurdles for Zimbabwe’s electoral process:

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network along with a number of other NGOs has identified the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries to favour ZANU-PF as a real problem. Provinces such as Mashonaland East & West which are largely rural, received a great of number of new constituencies, while areas such as Bulawayo, which is predominantly urban did not receive a significant number of new constituencies. The net result of this is that ZANU-PF’s strong rural support will be unfairly exaggerated and the opposition support undermined in urban areas.

The redrawing of constituency lines has also had the effect of limiting the number of polling stations available in urban areas – in Harare for example, there are only 379 stations for 760 000 voters. Each of these is open for 12 hours, leaving only 22 seconds per voter for all the ballots in the city to be cast.
There are serious concerns about the validity of the voters roll: it has been reported that there are as many as 3 million ghost names on the roll, with some NGOs concerned that these ballots will be put into ballot boxes in urban areas to shore up ZANU’s poor support base there.
Opposition leaders continue to be demonised in the state controlled media – the very symbolic and dangerous comparison of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai to a cowardly dog is one example.

State institutions such as the Grain Marketing Board are being used as tools of patronage. There have been reports that maize from the GMB is being distributed at ZANU-PF rallies. Other forms of state patronage have included 51% pre-election salary increases to civil servants and traditional leaders.
Media access is completely distorted in favour of the ruling party. The Zimbabwe Media Monitoring Project reports, for example, that in February 2008, Zimbabwe TV afforded a total of 202 minutes in its main news bulletins to ZANU-PF, and none of these stories was in any way critical of the party. In contrast, during the same period only nine minutes of coverage were devoted to the MDC, 26 minutes to Simba Makoni, and four minutes to other political parties. Within this meagre time allocation, the vast number of these stories was negative. The revised Electoral Act states that the broadcaster must provide fair and balanced coverage, yet this provision had only marginally been adhered to in the past week, following on the arrival of the observation mission.
Voter education drives have been very poor, especially given that Zimbabweans will for the first time be faced with 4 different ballots during the election.
The last minute change to the electoral law, which will allow police officers inside polling stations, is highly intimidatory and amounts to a clear violation of the agreements reached during the South Africa mediation process.
Party agents and observers will not be allowed to witness the counting for the Presidential election; furthermore observers are only accredited until 29th March, so they will not be able to witness the tabulation of results. This may already render the Presidential poll invalid before it has even begun.

“It has also been reported to us that ANC members of the SADC delegation in Zimbabwe have expressed their dissatisfaction with the tough questioning of officials by the DA representatives on the observer mission; the ANC can rest assured that DA representatives will continue to ask hard questions as is their duty as election observers. The people of Zimbabwe deserve nothing less”, said Leon.

The Zimbabwean reporter, Johannesburg

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