HARARE – Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party is discussing using a press clampdown and intimidation in rural areas to thwart a newly united opposition’s challenge to its three-decade rule in elections next year, according to three senior officials with knowledge of the matter.
Officials of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front are increasingly concerned the health of Mugabe, 93, may undermine his campaign and alternative candidates would struggle to beat a coalition of parties united behind opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, according to the members of the party’s politburo who asked not to be identified because the discussions haven’t been made public.
Among the methods being discussed are police clampdowns on opposition rallies and using state-controlled media to target opposition figures for alleged misbehavior in their private lives and alleged meetings with western diplomats, the officials said. No final decision has been taken on more violent tactics that were evident in the 2008 election, when the U.S. State Department said about 200 MDC supporters died, or softer propaganda tactics used in 2013, they said.
“I’m skeptical about the use of 2008 tactics; they know these tactics rob them of legitimacy and peer approval,” Alex Magaisa, a U.K.-based law lecturer and one of the architects of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution, said by phone from Harare, the capital. “They are more likely to use 2013 tactics; the subtle but effective use of the machinery of fear and intimidation.”
Zanu-PF spokesmen Psychology Maziwisa and Simon Khaya Moyo didn’t answer calls seeking comment.
The ruling party’s concern has mounted in recent weeks with the announcement that Tsvangirai’s party agreed to unite with the National People’s party led by former vice president Joice Mujuru and a breakaway wing of the MDC led by Welshman Ncube. They’re making their unity bid at a time of deepening unrest because of widespread poverty, massive unemployment and the collapse of basic services. Prior to the unity agreement, the authorities haven’t seen the opposition as a major threat.
Opposition parties have been handicapped in previous election campaigns by divisions among themselves, according to analysts such as Magaisa. Tsvangirai’s MDC has disputed every election since 2000, claiming voter intimidation and manipulation of the country’s voters’ roll, allegations that Mugabe’s government denied.
MDC officials say intimidation of rural voters has escalated in recent weeks, especially in opposition strongholds, such as Matebeleland in the southwest and Manicaland in the east.
“Zanu utilizes fear, so rural villagers are afraid to attend our rallies, knowing the history of murder, rape, arson and beatings meted out before elections,” MDC spokesman Obert Gutu said. “Villagers are being threatened with violence if they attend MDC meetings and being told that support for any opposition amounts to treason, which will lead to beatings and other forms of victimization.”
Many rural voters may fear that a new biometric balloting system will allow Zanu-PF to know who they voted for, said Pedzisa Ruhanya, who heads the independent Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.
“They’ll concentrate their intimidation on rural areas, knowing that their urban and peri-urban vote has been diluted even further since the last election on the back of activism directed at economic crises and decline,” he said.
Zanu-PF will also probably try to unite its own factions before the vote. In recent weeks, supporters of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and rivals in the so-called Generation 40 group, which backs Mugabe’s wife, Grace, as his successor engaged in street brawls in Harare.
“Zanu-PF will close ranks ahead of the election and stem the faction fighting that’s divided it in recent months,” Ruhanya said. “Knowing the real threat of a united opposition, they’re going to come together.” – Bloomberg