Press Spars over Election Results

Julius Dawu, World Press Review correspondent, Harare, Zimbabwe, March 14, 2002

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai declared the election "massively rigged" on March 13, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
Celebrating though it may now be, Zimbabwe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and its leader, Robert Mugabe, are taking a calculated risk in legitimizing the results of the elections held on March 9 and 10. Leaders and supporters of Zimbabwean opposition party the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) still see the election as stolen and as signaling the untimely death of democracy in Zimbabwe.

As Mugabe (78), unchallenged ruler of Zimbabwe for 22 years, eases himself back to the padded furniture at State House, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai (50) is battling to accept his worst birthday present ever [Tsvangirai was born on March 10, 1952]: official counts gave him 1.26 million votes, as compared to Mugabe's 1.68 million. The election results put Mugabe in power for a fifth term of office.

The reactions of Zimbabwe's government-owned and independent newspapers were as different from each other as a clenched fist is different from an open hand. The official press was quick to pillory the unpatriotic political puppets of the West. Zimbabwe's independent press, which has stridently favored the opposition, now fears retribution and legal muzzling.

Bulawayo's government-owned Chronicle, likened the poll result to the voice of God. It commented that Mugabe's victory is a victory for all landless peasants across the African continent dispossessed by past colonial regimes. "The victory put to shame counterrevolutionaries who wanted to stop the agrarian revolution which is blowing throughout the country," The Chronicle wrote (March 14).

"The message from Zimbabweans was loud and clear. They said an emphatic 'NO' to efforts by the British and their American cousins to impose a puppet government in the country. They refused to be a Nicaragua."

Even the South African media did not escape the Chronicle's vitriol. In another Op-Ed piece, headlined "South African Media Taking Hate Speech Too Far," the newspaper accused the South African media of being pro-MDC and parroting the European Union's line about rigged elections. "Statements in the South African media that the presidential elections were not free and fair sound... like parrots singing what the EU has already said in Brussels," The Chronicle wrote (March 13).

"This election was about allowing Zimbabweans to speak. And the people have spoken. When we need the help of the British and South African media, we will say so. But for now, they should shut their mouths and concentrate on flushing terrorists out of London into Blair toilets."

Harare's government-owned Herald (March 13) took a more reconciliatory tone, calling on all parties to bury the political hatchet. "We are confident that the government will listen to the concerns of the private sector and the people, and [will] move swiftly to address these problems…All stakeholders have a critical role to play in injecting life into the once vibrant economy. The economy, is, however, not in as very sorry state as is widely perceived," said the Herald (March 14).

Harare's independent Financial Gazette took a more gloomy view. On March 14, the paper's editors wrote, "Unfortunately for Zimbabweans, the poll results spell much more pain and suffering because, from now on, the entire international community will treat this country as the pariah it is. If Zimbabweans felt enraged by repeated shortages of this or that essential product and thought they had been brutalized enough, much worse seems destined to come because the tragedy of Zimbabwe's undoing only begins to unfold from today." Mugabe may be smiling all the way to the State House, the Financial Gazette's editors wrote, but he now faces the biggest challenge in his career.

"But let it be said that for all the bitter election rhetoric, Mugabe's moment of decision only starts now. Many in the land and beyond will be searching for clues to see if, in his last presidency (if the poll results stand), he will redeem himself and pull his troubled country back from the brink. Mugabe must now begin to chart a new and different vision for Zimbabwe compared to the one he rammed through the nation for two decades, no matter how late... One only hopes that Mugabe will read the explosive mood within and outside Zimbabwe correctly and act wisely, not just for his sake but for Zimbabwe's."

International civic organizations, election monitors, and local human rights groups have questioned the fairness of the polls. Duke Lefhoko, the head of the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum's election observer mission, wrote in his report on the elections that "Violence was manifest in the number of hospitalized victims, numerous cases of alleged torture, arson, assault and false imprisonment."

Mugabe, a former guerilla leader turned statesman, won 56.2 percent of the total 2,298,758 votes cast from among a pool of 5.6 million registered voters. Tsvangirai won only 42 percent while the remainder was split between Wilson Kumbula of ZANU-PF, Paul Siwela, who stood as an independent, and Shakespear Maya of the National Alliance for Good Governance (NAGG).

As much as the 2002 presidential poll was a vote on democratic governance in Zimbabwe, it was also a vote for a better livelihood. Zimbabwe's politics of freedom are inextricably linked to the politics of food and the economy. Zimbabwe, once a beacon for investors, and Southern Africa's breadbasket, has been turned into a pariah nation and an international beggar.

Investors have fled. The International Monetary Fund has indefinitely suspended loans to Zimbabwe, citing growing corruption in the country, unaccountability in the use of state funds, and a monstrous budget deficit. If that was not enough, inflation has passed the 116-percent mark, virtually paralyzing business. Unemployment in the country has surpassed 60 percent. An unemployment rate this high can only be seen as a ticking time bomb.

After parliamentary elections in June 2000 handed Mugabe his first defeat at the polls, he was determined to win this elections at all costs, the privately-owned Daily News observed (March 13): "Just about everything regarding this election process… has been flawed…. The government has shown its determination to win this election by hook or crook. It threw the rulebook out of the window and is now engaged in a campaign to hoodwink the electorate…."

"Harare may not be Zimbabwe," the Daily News admitted the next day, "But if its hundreds of thousands of voters had not been so nakedly disenfranchised by a frightened government, the capital would have been the catalyst in changing for a long time the political landscape of Zimbabwe. There are many other constituencies where eligible voters could not vote, either because ZANU-PF thugs prevented them doing so, or because their names had mysteriously disappeared from the rolls. All this, taken in tandem with the state-sponsored violence against all critics of the government, including the independent press, made for an election which could not unreservedly be endorsed as free and fair."

To Tsvangirai, and to governments around the world, the polls are illegitimate. The question remains whether the majority of Zimbabweans will stomach these poll results until 2008.

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