7 March 2002

More questions than answers on Zimbabwe poll

With only three days to go before Zimbabweans vote to elect their president, organisers were still unable yesterday to give basic details of how the election will be conducted. At a briefing for foreign election observers and the media, questions rained down on Sobuza Gula-Ndebele, a retired army colonel who chairs the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC), but time after time he was unable to give an answer. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and foreign critics accuse President Robert Mugabe, 78, of trying to rig the election, in which he faces his toughest challenge since he became leader after independence from Britain in 1980.

Sobuza Gula-Ndebele and other key electoral officials could not say how many ballot papers had been printed for the weekend presidential poll. Mystery surrounded the number of soldiers and policemen who have already cast their votes by postal ballot - an exercise which had not been made public until a report in a pro-opposition newspaper this week. "Some have voted but it is a minute number," Gula-Ndebele answered when asked by a Commonwealth observer who, if anybody, had monitored the voting by security forces. "How many?" asked the observer. "Not many," he replied. Nor was light shed on the exact location of 4 548 polling stations and when voters’ lists would be made public. Mugabe’s rival, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, says the campaign has been marred by systematic intimidation and cheating but insists he will win anyway. Most of the 500 accredited foreign observers are from Africa. Zimbabwe has excluded others from Britain, the European Union and the United States.

The ESC briefing, whose members were all appointed by Mugabe, clearly left many observers dissatisfied. "I have a problem. I don’t think as the supervisor of an election that is only a couple of days away you can tell people "I don’t know" Martha Sayed of Botswana’s Independent Electoral Commission said. "There is no way you can say at this stage that you don’t know how many ballot papers have been printed." When that question was asked, Simon Muchemenyi, representing Zimbabwe’s Registrar-General, replied: "I don’t have the exact figure but it is enough to cater for the needs." Norway’s senior observer, Kare Vollan, asked several questions which received no complete answers. "We are not sure what the bottleneck is," Gula-Ndebele said when pressed on the tiny number of accredited local observers. The opposition says the government is limiting the number to obstruct transparency in the voting.

A US diplomat, who wanted to know when the 5.6 million voters would learn exactly where they were registered to vote, was told that under Zimbabwean law this information could be published as late as Saturday, the first day of balloting. Gula-Ndebele sought to counter the sceptical tone of much of the questioning, saying that despite their high standard of education Zimbabweans were often distrustful of each other. "There are no secrets and tricks about this election," he said. It was also learnt last night that Mugabe had invalidated a Supreme Court ruling last week which struck down the government’s legislation which barred independent monitors from checking the validity of the vote. Mugabe announced further changes to the Electoral Act which gives the ESC power to ban voters who renounced Zimbabwean citizenship but retained permanent residences. The Financial Gazette


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