It's D-Day in Zimbabwe, and so far there's been huge turnout from among the 5.6 million registered voters who have been lining up since the still-dark early morning hours. The D could stand either for Democracy or Disaster. Democracy would mean that for the first time in a long time—more than a decade—Zimbabwe would have an uncontested, free and fair election.
Disaster would be a contested, unfair election that was not free. And that would undoubtedly mean that the 84-year-old Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who has ruled the country since independence in 1980, would be returned to power in a country that is now staring into the abyss, facing more than 100,000 percent inflation. There is no food on the shelves, or money to buy even if there were.
Unemployment is running at some 80-plus percent, there are chronic fuel shortages, life expectancy is reduced to some 35 years and the country is hemorrhaging population as people flee the country. Almost all independent media voices are muted or silenced.
It is a common reference now to say that Zimbabwe has gone from being one of Africa's breadbaskets to being one of Africa's basket cases, and it is also a widely held view that if all this happened on Mugabe's watch, then he is responsible.
Continuing Mugabe rule will likely mean continuing opposition, though no one is sure what form it will take. Mugabe accepts neither blame for Zimbabwe's current woes, nor for the potentially disastrous consequences that follow a scenario in which he is re-elected. He blames Britain and other western powers for the country's woes, including the sanctions slapped on by the U.S. and other Western countries and he told Al-Jazeera this week that he was "overconfident" of winning the election and that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would never be in power as long as he was alive.
But Mugabe has drawn an unprecedented two challengers, and they disagree. The newest, Simba Makoni, has acknowledged his role in some of the elements of the crisis, since he once served as Mugabe's Finance Minister and was on the powerful politburo of the ruling ZANU-PF party. But he has now left the party (though is without one, himself) and is now expressing remorse and regret. He has pledged to "see an end to the reign of mismanagement," as his campaign spokesman Nkosana Moyo told those members of the media. (Mugabe's government has banned most media from covering the election and many are hanging, trying to cover it from Johannesburg.)
I didn't even apply since I work for an international news organization and most of those are on the country's baaaad list (Al-Jazeera being one of the exceptions.) At the beginning the last election I went to cover in 2005, I was detained by Mugabe's police until it was too late to report on any of the days activities.
And so, we, the undesirables, cover the story from Johannesburg, where there often appear to be more Zimbabweans than back in their country. My NPR colleague, Ofeibia Quist-Arcton, has been camped here for weeks waiting and hoping for accreditation.
On Wednesday, she had still not given up hope, but she joined the "Coalition of the Banned" to hear the voice and views of the opposition candidate via his spokesman, Nkosana Moyo. And what we all heard from him was what we have also heard from the other opposition candidate, the Movement for Democratic Change's Morgan Tsvengirai; to wit, in Moyo's view : There is a major scheme to create a façade of open elections, but, in reality, a number of things militate against them. An element of secrecy that obliterates transparency in the voters rolls, that closed Feb. 14 (Moyo insists there is evidence that some voters were allowed to register vote later.)
Sometime on Wednesday, the opposition MDC lodged an urgent appeal in court to open the balloting process out of concern that the voter rolls contained the names of countless dead people (did the government take a page out of Chicago's book? No, said government supporters, who charged the MDC's complaints were simply aimed at discrediting the election
The MDC also wanted more clarification on the role of the police at the polling stations. In earlier negotiations, it won a concession to have the ballots counted at the polling stations, rather than at the central headquarters of the Electoral Commission. On Thursday, Mugabe's Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa insisted the election process had been transparent and argued that the MDC's latest moves are signs that "The MDC is panicking…staring defeat in the face." And the Court dismissed the MDC appeal. Surprise!
Also on Thursday, the Johannesburg-based Foreign Correspondents' Association issued a condemnation of the Mugabe government's media accreditation, saying that in canvassing its 192 journalists from 122 world media organizations, the organization had concluded "that rare approvals were given according to race and nationality."
Meanwhile, Tsvengirai's campaigning was curbed in the rural areas after his South African pilot was arrested and could be charged with overstaying his permit to be in the country, although it only expired during his incarceration. (The pilot is said to hold a British passport and just btw: Mugabe hates the British with a passion bordering on obsession.)
Other Moyo charges include: not enough polling stations in urban areas, seen as MDC strongholds. Moyo reckons that when you take the number of voters in those areas and the number of polling stations, plus the number of hours the polls are open, each voter would have about 22 seconds to vote. That vote would be cast not just for president, but for the first time in a synchronized poll, for legislative candidates, as well.
Noting the three million extra ballots that were printed (the government says as a "contingency" measure) and the limited access to the state-controlled media by opposition candidates, Moyo argued that the election campaign was "never meant to be an even playing field." The government is also allowing policemen to assist voters in the ballot box and recently delivered government handouts of food and farming equipment to rural voters, traditionally strong supporters of the ruling party.
From the list of grievances, it sounded like Moyo was conceding defeat and so I asked him if that were the case. "We are not contemplating a defeat," he responded, "We're saying we will win. We are arguing, however, that the other side is doing everything possible to throw the election."
And many human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, agree, if not on the victory statement, on the advance rigging. Their websites contain their critiques. And the South African Center for the Study of Violence and Torture has just released a study on the impact of violence on the elections.
Critics also complain that one potential problem is that only election observers from countries friendly to the Mugabe government have been allowed to monitor the election. But Moyo was cautiously optimistic that they "will do a better job" than in 2005, when they affirmed a process most of the world called unfair.
And Moyo argues that many of those involved in the previous "Mugabe rigging machine" are now on their side, leading one of the "Coalition of the Banned" to ask if that meant Moyo's side would be as good at rigging as Mugabe's.
Moyo quietly, but vehemently disagreed with the logic.
Moyo also allowed as to how the two opponents of Mugabe have very few policy differences and that Simba Makoni's priorities begin with addressing the core culprit in Zimbabwe's crisis—not the mishandling the economy, but a lack of respect for law and order.
He suggested that a victorious Makoni would move to establish a Government of National Unity, bringing in Zimbabweans "across the board." He also insisted that it was "not impossible, but highly unlikely "that Zimbabwe would experience Kenya-style post-election violence. Unlike in previous elections, there has been no violence, although rights groups report a lot of police intimidation. Still, said Moyo: "Zimbabwe is not tribally divided as much as Kenya was."
But the opposition is divided, and there are those who argue that this, alone, paves the way for the return of Mugabe.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a regular contributor to The Root.