RURAL council elections set for the end of October have all the ingredients of yet another stern test for the main contenders on Zimbabwe’s political
For the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) the polls next month pose a challenge as to whether steady hysteria whipped up by its leaders claiming they have made inroads into Zanu PF territory and chiselled down its support in the countryside is real or imaginary.
And although MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai has acknowledged a critical mass of people was needed to dismantle the Zanu PF behemoth and exhorted his supporters to “be prepared to make a mark to ensure that we will never again be oppressed”, the party appears unsure of how to master the trick.
Winning an election never rolls on the wheels of perceived success. “It comes,” as American human rights campaigner Martin Luther King said, “through the tireless efforts of men.”
Seldom over the past six years has the MDC failed to rehash the claim that Zanu PF manipulates the electoral process.
“The electoral laws require that prospective candidates acquire clearance letters from government institutions, which clearly is a ridiculous rigging mechanism,” complained Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the Tsvangirai-led MDC.
“Our candidates in Bikita and Hurungwe have been fined various amounts for coming late to seek council clearance even though there is no legal provision for such fines,” said Chamisa.
Spokesperson for the Mutambara-led MDC, Gabriel Chaibva, appeared to sing from the same hymn sheet, blaming state bureaucracy for failure to field candidates in all wards contested.
“We had serious logistical problems and undue financial demands from rural district council offices which made it extremely difficult for our people to get their nomination papers through,” said Chaibva.
He said his party needed at least $2,55 million to get police clearance alone for all its candidates. “And that is besides fees charged by rural district councils before a candidate gets a letter showing he does not owe the local authority any levies or charges, apart from the transport costs involved,” he said.
Excuses aside, the main opposition party has failed to put decent cover over its failure to put forward candidates, despite claims of gaining rural ground.
The Mutambara-led MDC succeeded in fielding 294 candidates mostly in rural Matabeleland North and South provinces. The party won two seats unopposed in Nkayi and Mangwe districts. At least 34 of its candidates were disqualified countrywide.
Significantly, in the Midlands district of Zhombe, five of its candidates were disqualified in seven of the contested wards. Four candidates each were disqualified in the Zanu PF stronghold of Mhondoro and Mberengwa districts. The rural elections on October 28 serve as a sharp test case of the success of the MDC in eroding Zanu PF’s rural support base and broadening its own reach.
Less than five weeks before decisive polls get underway, the ruling party already has pocketed more than 400 — close to a third — of the contested 1 277 wards in 59 of Zimbabwe’s rural districts.
Observers see signs of the splintered opposition beginning to flounder in these elections as evidence that it still has to grasp the critical role rural voters play in first-past-the-post polls under which Zimbabwe operates.
Both camps seem to lack the inspiration to win elections where it matters most.
Zanu PF is able to keep a few streets ahead of its opponents by ensuring that the rural electorate, who form the bulwark of eligible voters, is safely under its wings.
Already the fractured opposition is howling protests on being short-changed by the electoral institutions and processes under which the polls are held.
Chamisa says the party has proved its national character after fielding candidates in all the provinces despite Zanu PF machinations to elbow them out of rural areas.
“Over 300 candidates failed to file their nomination papers due to bureaucratic impediments orchestrated by Zanu PF,” Chamisa said. This contrasts sharply with the gloating by the Tsvangirai-led MDC after winning uncontested in five wards in Gokwe South, Shamva, and Bikita “where Zanu PF candidates chickened out fearing imminent defeat”.
Chamisa claimed in other districts such as Shamva, government had connived with headmen “to deny our candidates letters confirming that they are ordinarily resident in the areas in which they are contesting”.
The party has already written to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission raising serious reservations over these glaring irregularities.
Interestingly, the Mutambara-led camp laments that their prospective candidate in the Bubi district, Timothy Tshuma, was “bribed and defected to the Tsvangirai group”. It appears, from a list announced by the Mutambara-led camp, that there is a tacit agreement between the two opposition camps to concentrate their efforts in areas each stands a better chance of winning.
Chaibva denied complicity and blamed logistical problems as a major hurdle.
The rural district council polls come three weeks before two parliamentary by-elections in Chikomba and Rushinga where the Mutambara-led camp has not fielded a candidate.
“It was strategic not to field a candidate in each of those two constituencies,” Chaibva said. “We are glad our colleagues who have a habit of shunning elections have revised their stance. We are impressed that they have finally seen the light.”
He said the decision was not grounded on fears of splitting the vote. “We decided that our colleagues should have a go at it so they can test their support,” he said.
“If they have the courage to field a candidate in Rushinga it signifies political maturity beyond a stage where one thinks boycotting elections is an answer to the political crisis Zimbabwe.”