15 February 2013

Zimbabwe: Chequebook Politics Erode Democracy

SOON after the formation of the MDC in 1999, the state broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) carried and repeatedly aired television footage of party leader Morgan Tsvangirai gleefully clapping his hands as white farmers queued up to sign away cheque donations to the newly-formed organisation.

Before the formation of the MDC, Zanu PF received and used money from donors at home and abroad, including white groups and organisations. The late British tycoon Tiny Rowland was for a long time a major Zanu PF donor.

The party still receives donations from white-owned businesses as shown by a story in this newspaper last week.

The Zimbabwe Independent reported last week Meikles group mogul John Moxon donated vehicles to Zanu PF last year to boost President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF's bid to remain in power.

By donating the vehicles, Moxon was however not breaking new ground, but simply became the latest in a long list of travellers along the well-beaten path to the Zanu PF headquarters which has been traversed by many companies and individuals.

Moxon's case is all the more intriguing, given that not so long ago he was reportedly targeted by Zanu PF bigwigs during the Kingdom Meikles Africa Ltd demerger saga. He was specified but later the measure was lifted. Only recently he applied for a diamond mining licence.

However, after ZBC aired its footage showing Tsvangirai receiving money from white commercial farmers, Zanu PF went into overdrive and agog about it.

Zanu PF spin doctors claimed the MDC was a white-funded and controlled party. From then on, all sorts of pejorative descriptions have been used against the party: "Western-sponsored front", "puppet", or "running dogs of imperialism", among others.

Not long after that whites in general found themselves on the receiving end of a violent farm invasions.

Legislation such as the Political Parties (Finance) Act was crafted in 2001 as Zanu PF sought to block foreign funding for political parties in a bid to choke the nascent MDC.

However, President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF continue to receive funding for their party's activities openly from local businesspeople and companies as well as mysterious "well-wishers" as in the case of the controversial US$20 million presidential input scheme.

As elections draw closer, opaque donations will surge. This has led to debate about whether or not these donations do not amount to chequebook politics and their impact on elections and democracy.

All over the world -- from Asia, Europe and across the Americas, let alone Africa -- party political funding is controversial.

Analysts say even if they are bitter rivals, it seems Zanu PF and the two MDC parties agree on one thing: refusing to declare sources of their secret funds.

"All major parties in Zimbabwe, that is Zanu PF and the two MDC formations, agree on one thing: they don't want to disclose sources of their secret funding," one analyst said.

"Without making it impossible for parties to function, there is need for clear funding laws, rules and regulations because chequebook politics is destroying the right of voters to choose their leaders freely and eroding democracy."

In a paper done for the Institute for Democracy in South Africa analyst Judith February says private political party funding poses a serious threat to democracy.

"Why does the regulation of private funding to political parties matter and what is the link to poverty, underdevelopment, human rights and corruption?" she asks.

"To function properly, democracies require strong, independent political parties operating in an open and truly competitive political system. Parties, in turn, need money in order to adequately fulfill their role. Similarly, a well-informed electorate that can exercise equal influence over the decision-making processes is a condition for genuine participatory democracy."

February says unregulated private political party funding distorts the electoral playing field and hence undermines the role of the ballot in a democracy.

"Where there is no control over private funding given to political parties, a situation of unfairness and distortion of electoral competition may arise, ultimately undermining the equal value of each person's vote," she says.

"When wealth is allowed to buy influence and access by unregulated secret donations, or the perception of such, the effect on political rights and participatory democracy could lead to the average citizen's voice being silenced.

"All groups, including the poor and marginalised, should have an equal opportunity to influence the political processes through participation."

However, parties everywhere, including Zimbabwe, have subverted laws to receive secret funding to pay their bills and finance electoral campaigns.

Political commentator Godwin Phiri said the Moxon case shows the Zanu PF-business nexus which existed for a long time.

"It is no coincidence that Meikles applies for a diamond mining licence after Moxon's huge donation to the party that we all know controls who participates in that industry," said Phiri. "Moxon is greasing the hands that dish out the licences. With the same stroke, he has probably secured his investments from the indigenisation policy targeting non-black businesses."

MDC-T treasurer-general Roy Bennett recently said: "There is a relatively small but very significant network of whites that work closely with Zanu PF. The message will come down from on high that 'he is one of us; leave him alone'."

Zimbabwe Democracy Institute executive director Pedzisai Ruhanya said: "They (whites) have to play ball or risk losing their investments. Apart from getting contracts from government, individuals and companies also donate to protect their investments and businesses in a hostile investment climate where threats of company seizures are the order of the day."

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