Background Briefing

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Zimbabweans go to the polls on March 31, 2005.  President Robert Mugabe and senior government officials of the government of Zimbabwe have emphasized the need for peaceful elections, and put in place electoral reforms that, they argue, meet the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.  These guidelines, approved in August 2004 by SADC heads of state, including President Mugabe, establish standards to assess the conduct of democratic elections, the responsibilities of SADC member states and the procedures for electoral observer missions.  The principles include full participation of citizens in the political process; freedom of association; political tolerance; equal opportunity for all political parties to access the state media; independence of the judiciary; independence of the media; impartiality of the electoral institutions; and voter education.

The government of Zimbabwe has made some positive steps towards ensuring the elections will be peaceful.  But, with only days remaining before voters go to the polls, it is clear that the government has not adequately met the benchmarks set by the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.  It is imperative that SADC electoral observers and others do not assess whether the March 31 elections are free and fair only on the basis of observations of the final weeks of the elections. They must also take into account the effects of the past five years of violence, recent reports of intimidation, continuing electoral irregularities and the use of restrictive legislation.

The government of Zimbabwe has greatly limited the space for the opposition to campaign.  It has restricted the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly in many parts of the country.  Opposition party members and ordinary citizens have been intimidated by ruling party supporters and officials, war veterans, and youth militia.  The government has, thus, substantially infringed the right of Zimbabweans to freely form and express their political opinions and electoral judgments.  In short, due to this climate of intimidation and repression, the playing field for the 2005 election has not been level.

The ruling party’s claims that new electoral acts meet the SADC Principles and Guidelines are not supported by the evidence.  The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) Act, which provides for an electoral supervisory body, is not impartial, inclusive or independent.  The same partisan electoral institutions that supervised flawed electoral processes in 2000 and 2002 are supervising crucial electoral processes for the 2005 elections.  Major problems with the registration process, voter education and election monitoring that marred previous elections have not been remedied. It is especially disturbing that many retrogressive electoral changes introduced between 2000 and 2002 have been incorporated in the “new” electoral laws.

Repressive laws, most notably the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which were used arbitrarily by the government against the opposition in 2002, continue to be used. In addition the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) introduced after the 2002 election has been selectively used by the government against independent journalists and media organizations perceived to be critical of the government. This has led to the closure of a number of independent newspapers. Through these and other actions, the government of Zimbabwe has demonstrated its lack of respect for the basic freedoms prescribed in the SADC Guidelines including the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. As a result the elections are highly unlikely to reflect the free expression of the electorate.

Human Rights Watch calls on SADC member states to urge the government of Zimbabwe to ensure that in the  days remaining before the election, efforts are made to guarantee that all candidates are able to campaign freely and openly throughout Zimbabwe, that all candidates have access to the media, that journalists and observers are allowed to observe  the election process in all areas of the country, and that voters are allowed to choose a candidate and vote in an environment free of intimidation. Human Rights Watch also calls on the SADC observer team to report thoroughly and objectively on whether the elections comply with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections.

In December 2004 and February 2005, Human Rights Watch spent over three weeks in Zimbabwe and interviewed 135 Zimbabweans including representatives from the ruling party, the main opposition party and nongovernmental organizations (NGO); lawyers, church representatives, human rights activists and monitors, journalists and ordinary citizens.  Human Rights Watch received first-hand reports on electoral conditions in the provinces of Masvingo, Midlands and Matabeleland. Human Rights Watch visited the provinces of Mashonaland and Manicaland and the cities of Harare and Bulawayo.

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