The approval of the new Zimbabwean constitution on 16 March has moved the struggle for power between Zimbabwe's coalition government parties - the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) led by President Robert Mugabe, and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), namely the MDC-T led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and the MDC-N led by Industry and Commerce Minister Welshman Ncube - into a new phase. The three parties, which had spent over three years in acrimonious debate before ultimately striking a deal on the compromise constitution, will now have to agree on, and implement, a roadmap to peaceful and credible elections.
A total of 3 317 695 people, more than half of the estimated 5,6 million registered voters, participated in the referendum, and a landslide 94,5% of the votes were in favour of the new constitution. The voting was largely peaceful and orderly and the Southern African Development Community's (SADC) observer mission gave the referendum a clean bill of health.
Parts of the international community viewed the peaceful referendum as a significant step forward in the implementation of the September 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA). On 25 March, the European Union (EU) suspended restrictive measures against 81 individuals and eight companies. However, President Mugabe remained on the list of prominent Zimbabweans still targeted by an EU travel ban and assets freeze ‘until peaceful, transparent and credible elections have been achieved'.
Although Zimbabwe's main political parties supported the proposed constitution and the constitutional referendum was held in a relatively peaceful environment, there are concerns that the political stakes will be higher in the forthcoming elections and that this could result in violence. The new constitution will lead to new battles to end the shaky coalition government that both the President and Prime Minister have conceded to be dysfunctional. Zimbabwe has a history of electoral violence and its political temperature could rise as the election battle lines are drawn.
While Zimbabwe's political leaders have made repeated calls for national reconciliation and peaceful political activities, there are already signs that targeted violence could rear its ugly head again. The run-up to the referendum was marred by intimidation and the harassment of political activists and civil society representatives. A day after the referendum, police raided MDC-T offices and detained four party officials and prominent human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa after she allegedly tried to stop the arrests. With the security sector's partisan involvement in the country's politics and threats by the security chiefs to veto the forthcoming election there is a danger that the police and other security agents may abuse the rule of law during the polls instead of securing the vote.
Although the new constitution is a significant precondition for free and fair elections, it is not self-implementing. Deeply entrenched political interests, lack of political cohesion, biased institutional structures and elite groups keen to maintain the status quo are some of the challenges the country faces. Notably, the GPA parties' fixation on constitutional reform has resulted in the relegation of essential parallel processes such as voter education and cleaning of the shambolic voters' roll to the back burner.
The implementation of other key reforms outlined in the GPA critical to the conduct of peaceful elections, especially regarding the media and security sector, has also been neglected. The democratic structures provided for in the new constitution such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) and the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) will have to be strengthened and used correctly. The ZEC coped relatively well with the logistical challenges of conducting the referendum less than a month after the starting gun was fired. However, the harmonised elections will be considerably more complex than the referendum, which offered only two choices - yes or no - and a single ballot.
The cash-strapped Zimbabwe government has to ensure the timely availability of resources for the ZEC to prepare and run the forthcoming elections. The GPA provision on the non-partisan conduct of security forces also needs to come into effect before the polls, with some service chiefs having vowed not to respect the electoral outcome if President Mugabe does not emerge as the winner. Implementing the new constitution and the election plan, which still needs to be drawn up by the three governing parties and endorsed by SADC, will be an uphill task, requiring political goodwill and commitment. Given the tortuous road to the new constitution, the development and implementation of a clear roadmap may be protracted, making the mooted June 2013 election timeframe too optimistic.
Against this backdrop it is crucial that the GPA parties agree upon, and implement, a SADC-endorsed electoral roadmap. The roadmap should sequence key reforms in a manner that reflects the three main stages in the electoral process, namely the build-up to the elections, the elections themselves and the post-electoral period, in order to put democratisation on a sustainable footing. The SADC Troika representatives should work with the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee (JOMIC), comprising members of the three coalition government partners, to ensure the parties' compliance with the roadmap. Civil society groups and the media should continue to monitor the political environment to demand accountability and transparency during the electoral process, as well as to compile early warning reports. As guarantors of the GPA, SADC and the African Union (AU) have a responsibility to support Zimbabweans by deploying a heavyweight team of long-term monitors - and not ‘tourist teams' - to ensure peaceful and credible elections that conform to regional and continental expectations. SADC should consider giving its Electoral Advisory Council a more comprehensive mandate to ensure that Zimbabwe's elections are held in conformity with regional standards for democratic electoral processes. The Defence Sub Committee and the Southern African Regional Police Chiefs Cooperation Organisation are forums that could be used by SADC defence and police chiefs to reach out to their Zimbabwean peers regarding the role of the security establishment in support of elections. The United Nations should, if requested by the Zimbabwe government, prioritise funding activities that promote peaceful, transparent and credible elections, including increasing the capacity of the ZEC and domestic observers.
Gwinyayi Dzinesa, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria