In what is undoubtedly a product of what I now know to be the spring meetings of the World Bank and IMF, Freedom House hosted “A Conversation with Tendai Biti on Zimbabwe’s Elections” yesterday. Tendai Biti, the Secretary General of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and Zimbabwe’s Minister of Finance in the Government of National Unity mixed optimism with concern in his remarks on the elections anticipated in Zimbabwe this year (regarding the time frame, he said that it would not be legally possible to hold the presidential election until late July at the earliest, by which time the mandate of Parliament will have expired).
Biti argued that this would be a ‘defining election for Zimbabwe’ and compared its importance to the February 1980 contest that ended minority rule and brought President Robert Mugabe to power.
In the spirit of optimism, Biti pointed to three developments that he felt would ensure a (relatively) transparent and accountable election –
- A referendum that approved a new constitution with enhanced democratic safeguards: He emphasized new checks on the Executive as well as limits on the terms of positions in the security. He was also of the opinion that some of Zimbabwe’s more odious legislation, such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act would have to be revisited in light of the more democratic constitution.
- Collaboration between ZANU-PF and the MDC during the Government of National Unity established early in 2009: Biti said that he has learned a lot about Mugabe since coming into government and stated that his boss, Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai has as well. Emblematic of this collaboration are regular 3 am (pretty sure I heard that time right) pancake breakfasts between the President and Prime Minister. He added that there was also significant cabinet-level discussion surrounding the recent death of the young son of a senior MDC official, something that would not have happened when the MDC was in opposition.
- Zimbabwe’s rejuvenated economy: Biti said that Zimbabwe has witnessed immense economic progress since the formation of the GNU and neither side wants to return to the rampant inflation that characterized Zimbabwe in the decade prior to its formation
He then turned his attention to the matters that gave him concern –
- Fear of change: The issue of transitional justice was present throughout the conversation. Biti referred to ‘shareholders of the past’ in ZANU – PF who have illicitly acquired wealth and perpetrated significant amounts of violence. He urged South Africa’s President Zuma to play a prominent role in issues of amnesty and accountability.
- Power struggles within ZANU – PF: Biti expressed concern with factionalism in ZANU – PF given Mugabe’s advanced age. For most of Zimbabwe’s 33 years of independence, ZANU – PF has ruled unchecked, so regardless of electoral outcomes, strife within ZANU – PF will have a significant impact on Zimbabwe as a whole.
- An absence of genuine reform: Biti referenced historical concerns with the integrity of the vote and the security of the voter. He spoke blatantly of failures in past elections such as a bloated voter’s role, the absence of independent media (which he called ‘embarassing’), and violence and intimidation; he did not address any incidents he personally experienced, but spoke of the detention and murder of his friends and other MDC partisans.
Biti mentioned several politically motivated cases currently going through the courts at a tortuously slow pace. However, when a congressional staffer asked him about the recent arrest and detention of one of Zimbabwe’s leading human rights lawyers, he said that he maintained his confidence that Zimbabweans desired change and that new institutions like the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee would play a key role in resolving these types of disputes.
He went on to acknowledge that there would likely be violence in the election. However, he said that the Government of National Unity ushered in a cooling off period and he applauded Mugabe’s verbal commitments to non-violence since the aborted 2008 elections. His opinion was that the worst dregs of the 2008 election atmosphere will not return, particularly if there is a significant presence of international observers (he said he’d be happy with their mere presence, regardless of their nationalities). Biti also thinks that the increasing penetration of social media in Zimbabwe makes wide scale repression less likely. As an example of this societal change, he lamented his son’s musical preference for Kanye West over Thomas Mapfumo and Chimurenga music.
Funding for the elections was also a key issue for Biti, who has previously stated that the country has no money to finance elections; this contention was repeated at Freedom House. He added that although there has been some confusion regarding UN financial support for the elections, he wants UN assistance and thinks that it is essential for Zimbabwe’s efforts to rebuild its legitimacy in the international community.
Biti also exhibited a pan-African consciousness. He announced that the loser in Zimbabwe refused to step down in 2008, just as in Kenya the same year and in the Ivory Coast in 2010. He praised the provisions in the new constitution that provide for citizenship of immigrants to Zimbabwe from neighboring SADC countries and said that a rash of upcoming elections would allow the African continent to prove that it has come of age.
Befitting his status as Finance Minister, Biti burnished his economic credentials, speaking of Zimbabwe as a reliable destination for investors (he cited its abundance of natural resources, educated labor, etc.) and lauding its progress since abandoning the Zimbabwe dollar. He did however, express concern with the role of diamonds in shaping the political landscape and lamented the fact that no diamond revenues were accruing to the national treasury.
In what seems to be a best case scenario, Biti appears to envision the MDC winning Presidential elections that will be held in five to six months and that after a turbulent period of another 6 months, a smooth transition to a legitimate, free Zimbabwe will gather traction.
I don’t think that this optimism is founded, but as Biti said, Zimbabwe certainly ‘deserves’ it. None of the southern African liberation movements (SWAPO, ANC, MPLA, or FRELIMO) have lost power and I don’t see ZANU-PF willingly bucking that trend.