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Tsvangirai: Pressure for Fair Zimbabwe Elections Must Be ‘Like Darfur’

Interviewee: Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change
Interviewer: Stephanie Hanson
October 16, 2007

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Under the presidency of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has fallen into economic crisis. Inflation runs about 7,500 percent, and at least three million of the country’s 12.4 million people have fled the country. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s opposition party, places hopes in the elections planned for March. He urges international pressure for free-and-fair elections at “the same level like Darfur.”

Earlier this year there was a big crackdown on the MDC and you were injured quite severely. How has that crackdown affected your party and your support within Zimbabwe?

The brutal attack on the democratic activists, including the national leadership of the MDC, was an attempt to undermine the effectiveness of the democratic movement as far as challenging Robert Mugabe’s consent. The subsequent arrest of about two hundred activists in and around Harare decimated our structure for awhile. The objective was really to undermine the effectiveness of the organization and to instill fear in the people. Seeing the president of the party being brutalized had the effect of intimidating a lot of people.

And do you feel that there has been any recovery from that now?

Yes, we’ve recovered from that traumatic experience. Our structures are active in preparation for the forthcoming elections. There is a groundswell of expectation about the prospect for change in the forthcoming elections. There is a real new energy in our structures and in our supporters.

Right now elections are scheduled for March, which is just around the corner in terms of election preparations. I’ve seen some reports that voter registration has already taken place and it was pretty low. What can be done to make these elections free and fair?

It is almost impossible to have a free and fair election in March given, as you say, the time left to do what is needed to be done in order to have the conditions right. There are a lot of things that need to be rectified. Firstly, you talked about the voter-registration exercise. From one election to the next election is about five years and we expect at least a million new voters. But they have [registered] eighty thousand. It’s a serious disenfranchisement. So [what needs] to be done: a new, well-publicized voter registration by an independent body who would actually create those conditions for a clean election.

After that, the opposition must be allowed access to public media like the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, like the daily papers that are [now] a monopoly of government’s voice. Then you need to create freedom of assembly and freedom of political activities. I can go on and on. But those are the basics to give people the confidence that they need.

And if those things don’t happen but elections happen anyway, what then?

We’ll still perpetuate the same illegitimacy. I believe the reason we are demanding free and fair election conditions is precisely to resolve the crisis. It is not just a question of having an election as a ritual. It is an election that should produce a legitimate outcome or else we’ll still have the same disputed outcome like the last three elections and it doesn’t help.

Roughly three million Zimbabweans have fled the country. How will those people be included in the election process? Should they be allowed to vote?

Our attitude, as a matter of principle, is that no Zimbabwean should be disenfranchised. But of course, people have to make those logistics to ensure that Zimbabweans who have left the country involuntarily are allowed to vote. There are big clusters of Zimbabweans in South Africa, in the UK, in the United States, in Botswana, in Mozambique. Surely there should be a mechanism that will allow those who want to vote to vote. It will be a major disenfranchisement and it will be a major misrepresentation of the voice of Zimbabwe if those people are not allowed to vote. Our insistence on the diaspora vote can be actually a talks-breaking issue [in current talks with the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)]. 

The South African Development Community (SADC) is mediating talks between your party and ZANU-PF. Those talks are being mediated by South African President Mbeki. Can you comment on Mbeki’s role in facilitating the talks and how do you think he could be most constructive in addressing what’s happening in Zimbabwe right now?

Let’s distinguish between the 2003 initiative, which was largely concern by a neighbor [South Africa] on the crisis up north in Zimbabwe. That led to quiet diplomacy: Persuade Mugabe to see sense. Don’t shout about it. Otherwise, he just reacts. That was the basis of it. But the South Africans themselves have reviewed that policy and have now come to accept that it has not produced the requisite result. This time around, the initiative has a much broader mandate. The whole Southern African leadership [of SADC] has come together and they are working behind the South African leader to ensure that this process of talks actually leads to a resolution and leads to a free and fair election. There has been a serious paradigm shift as far as these current negotiations are concerned. And the cynicism, the skepticism that people express, sometimes is justified by past experiences. But certainly it is not justified by the current negotiating process.

There are possibilities but there are also vulnerabilities. And vulnerabilities are really based on the attitude and stance that ZANU-PF takes. It is a high-risk political initiative because we don’t know when ZANU-PF may decide it is not in their best interest because they will be the ones who lose a lot. Our view is that this initiative must be supported and that we should give President Mbeki the benefit of the doubt. After all he has also got his legacy to protect.

What about other African leaders on the continent and the African Union? What can they do to facilitate a resolution of the crisis? 

I do recall recently the comments by President Wade of Senegal that President Mbeki must not be left alone to deal with this issue. It is an African problem. We do welcome those kinds of concerns because they reflect an African concern, not just a regional concern in our part of the world. Even President Kufuor [of the African Union] said what was happening in Zimbabwe is totally unacceptable. Those are the kind of voices that will signal to Robert Mugabe that he cannot continue to appeal to African solidarity, hoping that they will blindly follow his lead. I think that by questioning why the crisis has taken place, a lot more Africans will become educated as to the nature of the crisis—that this has nothing to do with race or land, it is a crisis of governance.

You gave me the list of things that you’d like to see happen before the upcoming elections will be free and fair. It’s a daunting list. Could the international community be involved in that process in any way?

Primarily, that is what we’d like to see. The elections that are forthcoming in Zimbabwe must be raised to the same level like Darfur. There must be an international outcry. This is what we are appealing to the United Nations and to all the other international bodies. This is a major area of focus and if they raise the level of awareness, I am sure it will have an indirect impact.

Another area the MDC is focusing on is constitutional change. Recently your party and ZANU-PF passed Constitutional Amendment 18, which put some controversial changes, [including one that appears to allow Mugabe to hand-pick a successor] into place within Zimbabwe. What was your thinking behind supporting this bill?

It is just one step in a long road to conclude a whole holistic package of negotiations. Our civil society partners were taken aback and their criticism was not so much about the content. Their criticism was about the process. Remember that I am the founding chairman of the national constitutional assembly, which actually defeated Robert Mugabe during the 2000 referendum. At that time we were process fundamentalists. We said the process leads to an outcome and therefore, a wrong process leads to a wrong outcome. But we have since graduated from that position. We have said that we recognize this is not a decolonization process; this is a negotiation with an existing regime to institute constitutional reform that will be an outcome of give-and-take. Our civil society partners were very critical of that. And we have since, I think, patched our ways and they have [realized] this is not a sell-out deal. This is the process we believe can lead to resolution of the national crisis.

A lot of Western media talks about divisions within the MDC. Can you talk about those divisions?    

The MDC is a national movement. It appeals to Zimbabweans because it is the only alternative to ZANU-PF. As far as that grassroots following is concerned I don’t see any confusion around what their choices are between the status quo and change. 

What is at stake, however, is this perception that the opposition is divided. And therefore necessarily equals to failure. We are dealing with that. Our erstwhile colleagues understand that they represent a small portion of the community, and that they are better served by joining the majority. If they have a 1 percent following, they can’t remove Robert Mugabe. But if they join the majority, they’ll add value because every vote will count.

But that is water under the bridge. We have since moved on, the party is reconsolidated, the people are behind us, and as the founding president, I’m not the cause of the split.

I do not even doubt my mandate. We share the concerns about the division in the opposition. But the critical thing is [to] separate the division of the opposition and the free and fair election conditions. We’re fighting for the free and fair election conditions so that anyone, anyone can seek public office.

Does that mean that if under free and fair elections ZANU-PF won you would work with them?

If ZANU-PF wins in a free and fair poll, and we believe the elections were free and fair, who are we to say that the people of Zimbabwe have not passed judgment? They have passed judgment, they want ZANU-PF, so be it. But of course, it will be unpalatable to certain quarters including me, given the level of destruction, for anyone to believe that that party will ever win the confidence of Zimbabweans again. 

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