Zimbabwe and the myth of democratic change

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

The recent election in Zimbabwe was, according to a Guardian editorial (14/3/2) a "crime against the people". The election was "thoroughly fixed, fiddled, manipulated, and comprehensively stolen". Surveying the scene the editorial-writer found that "The evidence of massive fraud, rooted in intimidation and skulduggery of every kind, was to be found in every province, every township and every polling station. In short, the whole thing stinks."

There was indeed a lot of evidence for this fraud. There was the intimidation by the army, people forced to vote for the government in postal ballots, the reduction of polling stations in the areas where the opposition MDC had the strongest presence, rural no-go areas for the MDC, voting procedures made deliberately laborious with queues of 20 or 30 hours in the biggest towns, ballot boxes already stuffed with votes before they arrived in polling stations, people just removed from the electoral roll, the last-minute appearance of a second voters' list with an extra 400,000 names on it: all these were cited by those who condemned the election as not being 'free and fair'.

On the other hand, there were those, not just in Africa, who thought that the election was 'legitimate', that criticisms of it sprang from 'colonialist' interests, or were at least tinged with hypocrisy.

The Mugabe government was foremost in describing the colonialist manoeuvres of the British government and its allies in trying to 'destabilise' Zimbabwe. That the British High Commissioner had previously played a sinister role in Belgrade was grist to the 'anti-imperialist' mill. It was claimed that Britain had set up bases in Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique in preparation for an invasion. A Zimbabwean paper reported that the MDC had requested British military intervention if it lost the election.

Meanwhile, some commentators gave examples of other recent elections, some of which had been 'rigged', and others that were at least 'flawed', saying how two-faced it was to single out Zimbabwe for the full glare of publicity. Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, the Republic of the Congo, Montenegro, Ukraine, Russia, Slovakia and Italy have been among the countries cited for varying degrees of electoral irregularity. In addition, the example of George W Bush's election to the US presidency has often been mentioned, as well as the complete absence of elections in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.

The situation facing the mass of Zimbabweans

With all this concern about elections there has been little space left in the media for reporting what life in Zimbabwe is like. Inflation is between 100-120%, unemployment is at 60% (80% for young people), life expectancy has gone down 10 years during the last decade, and 25% of adults have HIV/AIDS. These are the things that concern people in Zimbabwe, along with the terror of state repression, Zimbabwe's participation in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the hunger that comes from extensive food shortages. Until recently Zimbabwe was a net food exporter, now nearly half its domestic needs have to be imported. After the election it was reported that Zimbabwe "plans to import huge amounts of food to stave off starvation caused by drought and agricultural chaos. It wants 200,000 tonnes of corn from Kenya, Brazil and Argentina" (Guardian, 23/3/02).

In government for the last 22 years, ZANU-PF have presided over a deterioration in the living standards of the working class and other exploited strata. Their land policy - redistributing white-owned farms to Mugabe's cronies, 'war veterans' and others who want to become small proprietors - has not so far benefited a hungry population, nor is there any prospect that it will in the future.

As for the 'alternative' of the MDC, it has gradually evolved since it was founded by unions in 1999. In accordance with the demands of the IMF and the World Bank, it is committed to privatisation and similar 'free market' policies. There is no evidence that such an approach has ever worked in favour of the exploited or oppressed. In Zimbabwe, as everywhere else in the world, bourgeois democracy means the continuing domination of the same exploiting ruling class. When Jack Straw said that "Zimbabweans have been denied their fundamental right to choose by whom they are governed" (Guardian, 15/3/02) he was showing what 'democratic rights' mean in decadent capitalist society. ZANU-PF and the MDC have expressed many violent differences of view, but they are united in their desire to maintain capitalist exploitation and the order of the state.

The poison of democracy

Although the bourgeoisie can't offer any genuine improvements in the conditions of life of the non-exploiting population, through its democratic campaigns it tries to convince us that we have common interests with our rulers. They have all their armaments, but we are told that the power of the ballot box is the greatest force on earth. In one sense that is close to the truth, for the mystification of democracy is one of the most powerful weapons that capitalism has.

A week before the election the Daily News in Zimbabwe declared that "It is now left to Zimbabweans themselves to deliver themselves from evil. And their only weapon is their vote." In a few short phrases the classes in society, with their different, opposing interests, are reduced to a mass of atomised individuals, fodder for the parties of the bourgeoisie in its democratic system.

The opposition of the MDC fed on widespread discontent throughout the country. It called itself the Movement for Democratic Change, but while it offered lots of democratic rhetoric it could not offer any change in the situation for those who live in Zimbabwe. Before the election MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai said of ZANU-PF: "They may want to arrest me, and at worst kill me, but they will never destroy the spirit of the people to reclaim their power". Elsewhere Trevor Ncube, publisher of a weekly newspaper insisted that "the people's passion and craving for change is palpable." These oppositionists respond to the discontent and unrest in Zimbabwe, but only with propaganda for a capitalist system that has proved itself bankrupt. Talk of the indestructible "spirit of the people" and "the people's passion" is not going to keep hunger at bay nor miraculously dissolve the state's repressive apparatus.

It is worth adding that the left-wing Socialist Workers Party has a sister organisation in Zimbabwe, and an MP who is part of the MDC. They say that "Only struggle can win real freedom" (Socialist Worker 16/3/02), but before the election result was known thought that "If Mugabe declares he has won and gets away with it, most workers will feel crushed, intimidated and beaten". If workers feel 'beaten' it's because they swallowed the illusions that the SWP sowed in the democratic farce.

Capitalism's democratic campaign

It's not just in Zimbabwe that capitalism's democratic campaign is important. Just as with the first post-apartheid election in South Africa, where lengthy queues were shown as evidence of people's gratitude for the opportunity to vote, the Zimbabwean election has been used as an argument against growing 'cynicism' about the democratic process in Europe.

A typical article, from Hugo Young in the Guardian (12/3/02), headlined "The people of Zimbabwe have put us all to shame", praises the commitment to democracy shown by people in Zimbabwe. The election "sets an example to all democrats". The political "literacy" of the people "produces an understanding of what democracy means, and an extraordinary willingness to fight for it against obstacles which, in Europe, could not be contemplated". He says there are "universal values and ... democracy is one of them". He talks of the betrayal of "people who in the last few weeks have suffered more for the cause of democratic representation than any western politician has ever had to do".

This is an appeal for people to value and treasure the 'democratic way of life'. By criticising Mugabe's 'cheating' the bourgeoisie elsewhere implies that they are custodians of systems that are 'free and fair'. In reality all the various capitalist parties have their differences of emphasis, but when it comes down to basics - the defence of the interests of the bourgeoisie through state capitalism, imperialism and the repression of the working class - they are united in their commitment to the continuation of the capitalist mode of production. All capitalism's elections are 'rigged' - in ways that are more or less sophisticated - because democracy is an integral part of the bourgeoisie's class dictatorship.

Car, 4/4/02.