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Can Zimbabwe hold violence-free elections?

May 18, 2023
tags:#elections, #Zimbabwe, #political violence, #democracy
by:Cyril Zenda
Elections in Zimbabwe have long been a violent affair, with scores killed in the run up to the polls and their aftermath. As the country gears for its harmonised elections later this year, NGOs are working to foster an atmosphere of peace.

In January, Zimbabweans were enraged by a video of showing ruling ZANU-PF party youths using logs to clobber elderly villagers in Murewa, north east of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare.

The victims’ 'crime' was organising a meeting for the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) party in the area. The partisan police claimed to be investigating in the incident, but more than four months later, nothing had happened to the assailants who brazenly recorded this violence and posted the video on social media.

Worrisome Rise In Election Violence 

As Zimbabwe prepares for the upcoming elections in August, incidents of political violence have been on the rise.

The country has a long history of violence in the context of elections, with opposition parties and some human rights groups repeatedly accusing the ruling ZANU-PF party of plotting the attacks. 

In the 2008 election, for instance, more than 200 people, mostly opposition members and supporters, were killed - with hardly anyone being held accountable for their deaths.

Political violence is especially rife in rural areas, with reports suggesting that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s party has already laid the groundwork, using traditional leaders to intimidate villagers. As a result of both overt and covert violence that is taking place in the countryside, media reports suggested that the main opposition CCC party was struggling to find candidates willing to represent it in some rural constituencies.

According to rights groups, covert violence includes use of food and other aid in political campaigns.

Intra-Party Violence inreases

Political violence does not only pit Zimababwe's ruling party against the opposition, but is also spreading within the parties themselves.

Since mid-March, ZANU-PF has been holding its primary elections to select candidates who would represent it in the harmonised elections, but numerous incidents of ‘irregularities’ – a euphemism for violence and rigging – caused the party to nullify the results in some areas. Analysts see these incidents of intra-party violence as a harbinger of worse things to come.

Religious groups have expressed concerns over these growing cases of violence. "We ardently call for peace and tolerance," the Zimbabwe Council of Churches (ZCC) said in a statement.

"As we approach 2023 elections lets all contribute to an environment characterized by freedom to campaign, articulate issues, and participate without fear, favour, and prejudices. We all have the responsibility to contribute to an election process characterized by peace and tolerance before, during and after the elections."

What Causes The Violence?

This atmosphere of aggression - which deprives citizens the right to elect leaders based on merit and qualification - is worrying religious and human rights groups and prompts many of them to embark on various peace-building projects.

The Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a broad coalition of various non-governmental and religious organisations, is one of the groups working to ensure that the forthcoming elections are held in an atmosphere of peace.

ZPP director Jestina Mukoko told FairPlanet that political violence is the outcome of politicians seeking to advance their own personal interests. "What we are noting is that the interest of candidates is not to be of national service, but actually it’s trying to be as close to access to resources, access to wealth, as much as possible."

"Our country is endowed with a lot of minerals and many people see political power as their window of opportunity to access these resources," she said, adding that as a result political contests in Zimbabwe become highly contentious, as people attempt to win these elections by all means - including violence. 

Babra Ontibile Bhebe, executive director of the Election Resource Centre (ERC) Africa, told FairPlanet that violence is meant to intimidate political competitors and their supporters. 

"As ERC, we have found that when the stakes are high, politicians tend to use violence to influence electoral outcomes," Bhebe said. "For instance, our systematic analyses of political violence in Zimbabwe have noted that ZANU-PF has often deployed open violence and intimidation whenever electoral stakes are high and the ruling party is faced with prospects of losing power to a popular electoral competitor, as was the case in 1990, 2002 and 2008."

She added, "In contrast, ZANU-PF approached the 1995, 2000, 2005, 2013 and 2018 feeling relatively politically secure and did not systematically use violence and intimidation to influence outcomes."

Peace-Building Initiatives

Mukoko of the Zimbabwe Peace Project said that their organisation runs peace-building projects in several parts of the country, where it is equipping the communities with conflict resolution skills.

It has introduced Community Ambassadors who lead in the fight against violence and made communities sign peace pledges. It also launched a mobile app (called SPECC) that allows community members to report incidents of violence, among other initiatives.

"What we have also done as an institution is that we have also launched what we call the #RRRV2023, which is Resist, Reject and Report (Violence in 2023)," Mukoko said. "What we are basically saying to communities is that they should not allow leaders who are violent to get into public office and we have made them realise that they have got a responsibility of ensuring that their communities are peaceful."

ERC’s Bhebe said that campaigns to promote peace during elections must be implemented at various levels by civil society, key national institutions, political parties and stakeholders with an interest in Zimbabwe's elections. 

"At ERC we are implementing a Vote for Peace campaign which seeks to amplify the message of peace as we head towards the 2023 elections," she added.

Focus on Youths

Youth for Peace and Development (YPD), a grassroots organisation that equips young people with conflict resolution skills, is also seeking to ensure that the country's youth are not manipulated by politicians to commit acts of political violence.

Munyaradzi Chitsuwa, a programme manager at YPD, told FairPlanet that numerous factors contribute to youth involvement in political violence, most notably frustration stemming from lack of meaningful economic opportunities.

"Hate speech, uneven distribution of resources and economic downfall have proved to be sources of conflict," Chitsuwa told FairPlanet. "Young people need behavioural change towards electoral processes." 

He added that as part of the solution, making resources such land and employment opportunities available would result in fewer youths being idle and therefore desperate and vulnerable to exploitation by power-hungry politicians seeking foot soldiers.

"Young people are depressed by the poor living conditions. They need land, jobs and better lives," Chitsuwa said.

Are Peaceful Elections Possible?

"Indeed peaceful elections are possible," Mukoko believes. "In the run up to the 2018 elections, the environment was relatively peaceful… the run up to the March 2008 elections was relatively peaceful, so it is possible for us to have peaceful elections as a nation, and I think what that takes is for our leaders not just to speak about peaceful elections, but also take the necessary steps that will provide sanctions for those who perpetrate violence."

"Unless there are penalties that people can actually see being meted out," she cautioned, "the risk is that those who perpetrate violence are likely to repeat it. It is upon our leaders to lead by example. 

"We appreciate that it is not an easy task, but the process having started, I believe that as time goes on, it will actually contribute people recognising the power that they have got as communities in terms of having peaceful environments in the run up to elections."

Multi-Stakeholder Approach Needed

Bhebe said that the removal of violence from electoral contests in Zimbabwe is the collective responsibility of various stakeholders.

"The Zimbabwe government and the various institutions that stand to promote democracy in Zimbabwe, including the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), must sensitise communities on the importance of political tolerance and investigate and sanction perpetrators of political violence."

"This also includes ZEC’s enforcement of the Electoral Code of Conduct for political parties and candidates and other stakeholders," she concluded. "Political parties must also sanction violence that happens at the intra-party level in an effort to build a culture of peace."

Image by Raymund June.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
As Zimbabwe prepares for the upcoming elections in August, incidents of political violence increase.
Embed from Getty Images
In Zimbabwe's 2008 election, more than 200 people, mostly opposition members and supporters, were killed. Hardly anyone was held accountable for their deaths.
Embed from Getty Images
The Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP), a broad coalition of non-governmental and religious organisations, is one among the groups working to ensure that the forthcoming elections are held in an atmosphere of peace.
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