Though civil society has reported isolated cases of intimidation and violence, particularly in rural areas, the general consensus is that Zimbabwe’s general elections, to be held tomorrow, on 31 July, will take place in relative peace.
“These will probably be the most peaceful elections in Zimbabwe in decades... In spite of reported cases of intimidation by political activists in some parts of the country, the environment leading to the elections has been violence-free,” Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, told IRIN.
There was widespread violence in the last election, in 2008, which the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), claimed resulted in more than 400 deaths. MDC alleges thousands of its supporters were maimed or displaced from their homes when militias linked to the ruling party, ZANU-PF, attacked and tortured them. Previous elections were also marked by politically motivated violence against President Robert Mugabe’s opponents, with reports that the police and army also participated in the persecution.
There have been no reports of widespread violence during this campaign period, with political parties sometimes holding rallies in the same areas in peace and pasting their posters side-by-side.
But the run-up to the elections has been marred by irregularities such as the absence of the voters roll and allegations of vote rigging. Last week, MDC-T leader and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai raised concerns over the "shambolic" manner in which the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is handling the electoral processes, and warned that the election would not be free and fair.
Cautious optimism for the polls
Observer missions have welcomed the peace prevailing in the country. The African Union (AU) election observer mission, in a recent pre-election statement, said the conditions showed a significant improvement from the 2008 situation.
“The mission commends all political contestants and stakeholders for contributing to the present temperate political climate, a marked improvement to the conditions that preceded the 2008 harmonized elections,” said the AU in the statement.
During a recent media conference in Harare, the capital, AU chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma reported that all political parties had expressed satisfaction with the current conditions. “Generally, all of them [parties] are happy that everything has been peaceful up to now, and it is our hope that the environment will obtain up to the end of the polling process. Peace is critical so that Zimbabweans can freely cast their votes,” she said.
Sindiso Ngwenya, secretary-general of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), said he was confident that the elections would be held peacefully. The bloc recently launched its observer mission.
“I don’t think we should be worried too much. We are confident there will be peace,” said Ngwenya.
But Nixon Nyikadzino, the programmes manager at the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition - a coalition of hundreds of civil society organizations - warned that the peace might be short-lived if President Mugabe loses.
“The security sector that backs President Mugabe might step in and lead organized violence if there are signs that their favourite candidate is losing. This is what happened in the March 2008 elections, which were held under a relatively calm atmosphere. However, when (MDC leader Morgan) Tsvangirai won, there was a lot of violence. Mugabe has been calling for peace because he seems confident of winning,” Nyikadzino told IRIN.
He noted that Mugabe appeared to be steadily moving away from his calls for peace during campaign rallies. At a political gathering in Bulawayo, the president warned that there would be war if Zimbabwe was recolonized. He has accused Tsvangirai and the MDC of being fronts of the West, which he says is planning to topple him.
“This country is so precious, and it should be closely guarded so that it does not fall into the hands of people working with imperialists. People shed their blood for it. The blood will continue to be shed if we realize we are losing the country,” said Mugabe.
Heal Zimbabwe Trust (HZT), an NGO working to promote peace that has been giving regular updates on the country’s political environment, has found that unreported harassment has been taking place in some rural areas, particularly in Mashonaland Central and East, Midlands and Masvingo provinces.
The organization has reported cases of soldiers assaulting MDC supporters, death threats being issued against teachers, villagers being forced to attend Zanu-PF rallies and even abductions of political opponents.