- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2000

The people of Zimbabwe, currently involved in one of the most powerful democratic reform movements not only in Africa, but in the world, had the opportunity amidst a backdrop of pre-election violence to elect a new parliament. The turnout well exceeded that of other recent elections and the results of the vote, which was really a referendum on the leadership of the country's 20-year authoritarian leader, Robert Mugabe, are human testimony to the desire for a government of, by and for the people rather than one for itself. The stakes in Zimbabwe are high, for it is democracy and good governance that is on the precipice.The democratic reform activists kept on campaigning though many were beaten, their lives threatened, and supporters tortured. This was Valley Forge on the Limpopo. Just as the harsh winter at Valley Forge hardened and defined the American spirit of freedom, so will the hardships endured by the Zimbabwean people lead them to a more democratic society. There are indications that the violence and intimidation, rather than keeping Zimbabweans away from the polls, had the opposite effect.Despite government-sponsored or condoned intimidation and harassment, a courageous coalition of political parties, trade unions, civil society groups, religious organizations, and what appears to be an overwhelming percentage of the Zimbabwean people, sent a very strong message that an authoritarian regime will not last.Although the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged as the strongest opposition party against the ruling ZANU-PF, it is very clear that those who want change encompass a wide spectrum of Zimbabwean society, including many members of the majority party. The desire for a strong economy, for jobs, for a peaceful country in which the rule of law prevails, is very deep. While many opportunities for reconciliation and good governance were lost following the great promises of the early 1980s, Zimbabwe once again has the chance to move forward in a positive, constructive manner.The pre-election period was marked by a climate of fear in which the electoral process was, according to Lorne Craner, the president of the International Republican Institute, "the worst ever seen by IRI." For an organization such as IRI, which has observed nearly 90 elections in 40 countries, to give Zimbabwe the designation, "worst ever," speaks volumes.

The leader of the EU delegation, in a midnight press conference, issued an interim report in which he stated that while the two voting days were relatively calm, "the term free and fair is not applicable in these elections." He said the ruling party was responsible for the majority of violence in the run-up to the election.

African drums beat as the parliamentary election dates of June 24 and 25 closed and those who have been oppressed and suppressed in both rural and urban areas cast their ballots at one of the 4,000 polling stations. All were told that their vote was not really secret and that the government will know how they voted. In spite of, and perhaps because of the intimidation and harassment, over 60 percent of the five million-plus registered voters went to the polls.

In another one of his serious miscalculations, Mr. Mugabe thought that by selecting who could observe the election and refusing to accredit many domestic and international observation groups, he could control how this election was viewed. As the Kenyan newspaper The Nation stated, "The omens are all too clear. A man who has nothing to hide does not do things in the dark. If Dr. Mugabe rigs this election, the truth will come out regardless of how many observers he bans."

Non-governmental organizations, such as IRI, were rejected by the government of Zimbabwe from receiving observer accreditation. IRI cancelled its planned international election observation delegation because the electoral process was so seriously flawed. Although there have been suggestions from some ZANU-PF party officials that the newly elected parliamentarians will not be seated and that they also will be rejected, hopefully, better reason and softer rhetoric will prevail.

Current events in Zimbabwe are very painful for those who have a longstanding, deep affection for Zimbabwe and who recognize the talent, work ethic and values of most Zimbabweans. The present government of Zimbabwe began its journey in 1980 with great hope. Many currently in the opposition were originally a part of ZANU-PF, the majority party, or considered themselves in partnership to foster a peaceful transition from Rhodesian colonial rule. Education and health care facilities were improved. Land reform was and continues to be considered a necessity by virtually all Zimbabweans.

Zimbabwe should know the world is watching. While IRI knows the elections cannot truly represent the wishes of all the people because of the high level of fear, we believe Zimbabweans have used this opportunity as best they could. We also know they are not alone. The U.S. Congress, led by Sens. Frist and McCain, Reps. Gilman, Hastings, Royce, Payne, Cooksey and others, have introduced or support very strong legislation concerning the troubled pre-election period and the breakdown of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.

Many of the fundamentals of a democratic society exist in Zimbabwe and the long lines at the polling stations last weekend reflect an impressive determination on the part of the Zimbabwean people for democracy and good governance. Let's hope the government gets the message.

Lloyd O. Pierson is director of the Africa Division for the International Republican Institute (IRI).

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