Tendai Biti. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Tendai Biti. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Zimbabwe’s elections scheduled to take place in 2018 will be the most important in a generation and critical to restoring democracy and economic growth in a country that has been dominated by one party since independence in 1980, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) politician Tendai Biti said on Wednesday.

A violent election and land reform programme in 2000 caused an economic collapse.

"It is the most important election of our lifetime because it has to answer the question of legitimacy," Biti said in Johannesburg as Zimbabwe celebrated its national independence day. "The quality of this election, the substantive content and outcome of the election are going to be key."

Zimbabwe is required by its constitution to hold general and presidential elections by August 22. The vote will be the first without Robert Mugabe since 1980. Mugabe, 94, stepped down as president in November 2017 after the military temporarily took control. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who replaced Mugabe, has been nominated by Zanu-PF as its presidential candidate.

Six opposition parties have formed an alliance with the biggest group, the MDC. Zimbabwe’s main opposition figure and MDC founder Morgan Tsvangirai died of cancer in February. Nelson Chamisa, a 39-year-old lawyer, will run as the coalition candidate.

The influence of the military on Zimbabwe’s leadership bodes ill for genuine democratic reform

Biti said the opposition’s prospects for the elections are good, partly because 60% of the 5.3-million registered voters are between 18 and 40 and have little memory of the liberation war that shaped the governing party’s generation. Chamisa’s youth will help, he said. "Demographics are going to play a key role in this election."

Still, the influence of the military on Zimbabwe’s leadership bodes ill for genuine democratic reform, he said. "We may have removed a dictator but we did not remove the dictatorship."

Five elections between 2000 and 2013 were marred by allegations of rigging, violence and intimidation, with Mugabe accused of human rights abuse. While Mugabe refused to allow Zimbabweans living abroad to cast their ballots, foreign affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo said this week that the government was working on the logistics of the diaspora vote because it is guaranteed in the constitution that was rewritten and enacted in 2013.

An estimated 4-million Zimbabweans, about a quarter of the population, live in foreign countries, with the majority in SA.

To ensure credible elections, the opposition alliance is seeking as many as 10 electoral reforms, including scaling down the role of military or former military officials in the electoral commission, an audit of the voters’ roll, transparency in the procurement of ballot papers and voting materials, and the presence of international observers during the elections, Biti said. The government has asked the EU and the US to send observers, the first such invitation since 2000.

"One of the things we are demanding is that the military must publicly declare they will respect the constitution of Zimbabwe and they will respect the electoral outcome that is pursuant to the election," he said.

In 2002, Zimbabwe’s military chief and current vice-president Constantino Chiwenga said the armed forces would never salute a president who hadn’t fought in the 1970s liberation war against the white-minority regime of Rhodesia, a reference to Tsvangirai, who did not play a role in the armed struggle. That has never been withdrawn, Biti said.

Potential compromise

A constitutional lawyer, Biti, served as finance minister from 2009 to 2013 in a unity government with Tsvangirai as prime minister and Mugabe as president. He was expelled from the MDC after falling out with Tsvangirai in 2014 amid disagreement over the party’s defeat in disputed 2013 elections.

A year later, he was elected to head a breakaway opposition organisation, the People’s Democratic Party. His party has joined the opposition alliance and is currently in talks with the MDC for re-integration.

Given the short amount of time left until the elections, which may be held in July or August, the MDC alliance would accept a compromise allowing the people in the diaspora to cast their votes for the presidential candidate at embassies, but not vote for individual lawmakers, according to Biti. The presidential election is a national vote, while lawmakers compete for constituencies.

Still, a delay of the elections by the ruling party can’t be ruled out, Biti said. "The danger and the possibility of them finding a legal way of postponing the election is there. Remember, the judiciary is not quite independent in our country."