HARARE – President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF is harvesting fear from the 2008 elections when over 200 people were killed, with many set to vote for the ruling party out of fear after being made acutely aware that active involvement in politics, particularly on behalf of the opposition, could result in death, State, independent election bodies and analysts have said.
Political experts said Zanu PF is aware that naked physical violence will not be accepted by Sadc and yet at the same time a relatively free and fair election might undermine its electoral chances in the crunch 2018 vote.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, the party is using “psychological warfare premised on manipulating the fear inculcated in communities” in the 2008 election, among other strategies, according to Oxford scholar Philan Zamchiya.
Zamchiya said Zanu PF would prefer a psychological warfare as compared to a physical warfare, with the broader intent summarised as a “harvest of fear.”
Voters know that little or nothing is done to bring the perpetrators to justice, especially if they are members of the ruling Zanu PF, a fear that has taken a heavy toll on the voting population.
Merely the threat of a repeat of the 2008 violence that Zanu PF is once again hawking ahead of the 2018 elections, and the resulting fear it instils, means that Zimbabwean voters will just cast their ballot for Zanu PF to save their lives.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), the first body tasked with investigating cases of rights abuses and the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) —the largest independent observer group in the country — have both highlighted that overt violence is now being supplanted by more sophisticated forms of intimidation, such as threats of a repeat of the 2008 violence or coerced membership in Zanu PF.
Zanu PF spokesperson Simon Khaya Moyo has rejected the accusations, saying “we are not a party of coercion; people come to the party voluntarily.” He said those intimidated must report to the police.
These pressure campaigns by government officials, traditional leaders or Zanu PF members tend to be directed at the voting population and local activists in the countryside, rather than high-profile opposition party members.
In a report on the 2013 elections that has been tabled in Parliament, Zesn said the spectre of violence that took place during the 2008 presidential election run-off was ever present as Zimbabwe heads to another election.
“The long-term psychological impact of the type of violence that characterised the 2008 presidential election run-off campaign with no recognition or meaningful reconciliation cannot be quantified, particularly when the threats to the victims have continued throughout this electoral cycle,” the observer group said, adding there were no mechanisms established to address fear, intimidation and violence.
Many rural Zimbabweans now consider threats or harassment against those who support political parties other than Zanu PF as frightening but “normal”. It has become increasingly common for village or commune chiefs to threaten supporters of non-Zanu PF parties with violence, total social ostracization, denial of access to community resources or support systems, or expulsion from their villages.
A report on the findings of the ZHRC, pursuant to an investigation undertaken into a complaint alleging violations of human rights by an independent candidate prior to the Hurungwe West by-elections in Mashonaland West, found that Mliswa, his supporters and his perceived supporters in the June 10, 2015 special election “were living in fear.”
“They felt that they were constantly intimidated and that their security was not guaranteed,” the constitutional body said.
Villagers were restrained from supporting Mliswa and warned not to attend his rallies. Traditional leaders perceived him as not being suitable to contest in an election even as an independent candidate because the top echelons of the ruling party no longer recognised him.
“At the time of the investigation, complainant could hardly or fully access the constituency in order to campaign,” ZHRC said. “The high levels of repression, threats, intimidation and violence that some residents perceived affect the right to vote as those people aligned to complainant would not feel free to exercise this right.”
Chair of the ZHRC, Elasto Mugwadi, has pointed out that the rights body could demand suspension of elections, at least by constituency, if there was serious violence during the 2018 elections.
He extended this to include diatribes, hate speech and political incitement. But the Research and Advocay Unit said “the downside is that the ZHRC will only have power to recommend proposed suspension to Zec, and the final power will still lie with Zec.”
“This is when the true independence of Zec will be critical,” RAU said.
As in past elections, local officials continue the practice of collecting voter registration cards, recording the voter’s name and registration number, and then returning the cards.
Traditional leaders also marshall voters to polling booths. This causes widespread fear that the choices of individual voters will not be secret, and in fact will be monitored by local authorities, experts said.
Zanu PF also distributes gifts as a reward to their supporters, using the lure of gifts to coerce or force people into joining and supporting the party.
In some areas, villagers have not only been coerced to swear loyalty oaths and sign registration rolls for Zanu PF in exchange for gifts, but they have also been pressured to sign forms resigning from their previous political party membership.