With political violence escalating in Zimbabwe, national elections slated for later this year face questions about whether the polls will meet free and fair international benchmarks.
Zimbabwe’s elections have routinely met scrutiny largely because of what critics say is state-sponsored violence and the intimidation of opposition political parties.
Recent weeks have seen violent attacks on opposition political supporters by suspected members of the ruling.
Zimbabwe African People’s Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) despite regular calls by President Emmerson Mnangagwa for peaceful political engagement among rival party supporters.
The main opposition, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), says its supporters have been brutalized by ruling party activists, with analysts noting that political violence is compromising the country’s stated commitment to holding free and fair elections.
In the aftermath of political violence recorded on a widely shared video last month where opposition party supporters were attacked, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference (ZCBC) issued a statement raising concerns about the implications of such attacks on the credibility of the polls.
“As the nation heads towards the harmonized elections, we urge all political players to desist from the use of violence. The people’s fundamental rights should be respected at all times. There is no citizen who should be intimidated or coerced, and worse still, be beaten to make a choice,” the Catholic bishops said in a statement last month.
“As a nation, we have in the past seen a lot of violence around elections; let this election be different. The people of this country dream and yearn for a free, credible and fair election,” the bishops added.
Last year, another video circulated showing women wearing opposition party regalia being stripped of their T-shirts, with the recent incident adding to concerns about the country’s willingness to shun politically motivated violence.
“It’s not the casting of ballots that ascertains free and fair elections; it’s the environment we create before, during and after elections. It is, therefore, incumbent on the government, political parties, and all institutions that we create a level playing field,” the bishops said.
These concerns come when the country’s elections are being closely watched both locally and internationally as the country’s human rights and press freedom record are already under scrutiny as the two are seen having a bearing on democratic processes.
“We call for zero tolerance to violence. The culture of violence speaks against the moral fabric of our society. To curb nurturing such a culture, we call upon the government through its various institutions to bring the perpetrators of violence to justice and may the victims of that violence be protected,” the Catholic bishops said.
Local rights groups have also added their concerns about peaceful polls, with the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) saying it is engaging the country’s political parties to ensure zero tolerance for violence.
But the recent violence recorded on video could mean little traction towards addressing those concerns.
“We have been meeting with political actors, all the major political parties, to try and promote peace towards these watershed elections,” said Reverend Wilfred Dimingu, Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches.
“Our efforts are to rebuild our electoral processes so that we do not have an election that has contested results because of political violence,” Dimingu told IPS.
Civil society groups say the coming elections are already facing a credibility crisis because of the political violence, which appears to have escalated since last year as political campaigns for the 2023 elections went into full swing.
“The recent incidents of political violence, which have escalated since 2022 when the CCC was formed, can only point to a disputed election that will fail the credibility test and ultimately lead to yet another legitimacy crisis,” said Blessing Vava, national director of Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe, a local rights group.
However, the role of the country’s security arms, such as the police, has also been brought into question as identified perpetrators of political violence are yet to be brought before the courts of law.
“There is an increasing collusion between the ruling Zanu PF and the state security forces, who have been on hand to clamp down on civil society and opposition activities, while Zanu PF has continued to abuse its incumbency by continuing with its activities unabated and with full support and cooperation of state security agencies,” Vava told IPS.
Local human rights researchers note that there is little to boost the confidence of a free election amid what they see as “organised violence,” said Tony Reeler, senior researcher at the Research Advocacy Unit in the capital city Harare.
“In none of our policy dialogues, including the prospect of serious violence, do any of the discussants believe that a bona fide election is possible,” Reeler told IPS, referring to public discussions organised by his organisation and held regularly ahead of the elections.
To ensure credibility, Vava says international observers must be allowed into the country ahead of the much-anticipated elections.
“Regional and international organisations should be involved in monitoring the elections to ensure that they are free and fair, and that the rights of all citizens are respected,” Vava told IPS.
For now, it remains to be seen if political violence will ease amid calls by the country’s president, religious leaders and civic organisations for peaceful political campaigns to ensure undisputed election results.
IPS UN Bureau Report