IF ever there is an issue all political formations contesting next week’s elections are guilty of, it is overstating the number of supporters attending their campaign rallies.
The political protagonists have been playing numbers games intended to build momentum which should hopefully propel them past the post ahead of the competition.
Publicists and spin doctors for the main contenders for the presidential office appear to play the game with gusto. They have perfected the ploy to misstate election attendance figures into an artform. Gullible scribes have fallen for the ruse to publish ridiculous figures about attendances at rallies.
Sakubva Stadium in Mutare when bursting at the seams holds at the most 25 000 supporters. But stories were written in newspapers and online publications last month of the MDC manifesto launch attracting a 60 000-strong crowd at the venue. I covered Morgan Tsvangirai’s well-attended manifesto launch in Mutare when an MDC official in the information department standing a few metres from me claimed “50 000 at MDC rally in Mutare”. To this day, the official swears that there were 50 000 at the venue which is much smaller than Rufaro Stadium in Harare or Barbourfields in Bulawayo which both take 35 000.
Sections of the media then decided to inflate the already inflated figure to come up with 60 000. This is about the seating capacity of the giant National Sports Stadium!
Simba Makoni’s election campaign handlers have also caught the bug. In Masvingo on Saturday Makoni addressed at the most 4 000 enthusiastic supporters at Mucheke Stadium which has a capacity of 10 000 people. After the rally I asked a senior member of the Makoni campaign team how many people had attended the rally. “I counted them, I am sure you saw for yourself that there were 16 000 people. That is what you should go and write,” he said with a straight face.
I declined the invitation to plumb these absurd depths of misinformation. If this official had been right, then Tsvangirai’s rally the next day attracted 45 000 supporters because there were clearly three times more people at the MDC rally than Makoni’s. But hang on, MDC officials said there were about 20 000 people at their rally.
With President Mugabe’s rallies, the picture on the front page of the current edition of the party newspaper The Voice, captures how his party is playing the numbers game. In rural areas where the president has been campaigning lately, school children are frog-marched to rallies to inflate figures and give the semblance that our octogenarian leader commands mass support. The shot in The Voice is dominated by little children raising the small clenched fists to mimic the elders around them.
Not only that, at business centres where the president has been holding rallies, shops are forcibly shut to ensure that the focal point of the populace becomes the rally.
At his Mucheke Stadium rally, Makoni thanked those who attended for coming without being forced to do so. This is to mean that those who attended his rally did so because they had a keen interest in doing so. But among these were observers attracted by the novelty of Makoni and fence-sitters looking for a home at the eleventh hour. Makoni for his part has introduced an innovative method of campaigning in which he is spending more time interacting with voters in small groups and talking directly to a receptive mind and not partisan crowds.
This is different from Zanu PF’s door-to-door campaign in which thought police and in some cases hoodlums are dispatched to straighten voters and not necessarily to win them though persuasion.
Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC is situating itself as a mass party ready to take Zanu PF head on. Like Zanu PF, it has designed party regalia and made its own jingles. At rallies, melodic chants, accompanied by whistling and ecstatic cheers precede speeches executed with precision apparently hewn from pages of tele-evangelist manuals. The speeches are accompanied by play-acting and dance. Even Tsvangirai now displays amazing agility of feet and fronts many party songs. He has become an entertainer! Makoni toyi-toyied on stage for a good 90 seconds before addressing his rally in Mucheke perhaps to
demonstrate his relative youth and vitality compared to Mugabe.
Mugabe on the other hand is neither dancing nor singing. He is “chanting slackness” as Rastafarians would say. In Mvurwi last Friday, he upped the tempo of insults to say “hure rekuMbare” is better than Makoni.
At the moment, I am not interested in Makoni’s jogging, or Tsvangirai’s singing Chinja yakauya zvishoma nezvishoma, or Mugabe’s current fascination with Mbare’s nocturnal girls. There is enough of all this on television and in pop music. What does inflation, a worthless currency, hunger, deprivation, drug shortages, dry taps have to do with hure rekuMbare? Inspired by the dark nights with no electricity perhaps?