Zimbabwe's 'New Era' hailed

Ida Wahlstrom

WASHINGTON, Apr 11 (OneWorld) - African development experts here are cautiously optimistic that Zimbabwe's election process, while still disputed, will bring about historic change for the country's 12 million people.

"Regardless (of what happens), we have a new era in Zimbabwe," said Roxanne Lawson, who was among a team of human rights and social justice advocates that traveled to Zimbabwe to observe the recent elections.

Lawson and Imani Countess of the TransAfrica Forum and Briggs Bomba from Africa Action spoke at a public forum Thursday about their findings interviewing Zimbabwean civilians prior to and during the country's historic vote.

"(The election crisis in) Kenya took all of us by surprise," said Countess, drawing parallels to the turmoil experienced by the East African country after its national elections just three months earlier. Many Africa observers had warned that Zimbabwe could face a similar violent fate if its elections were similarly contested.

Countess explained that her group traveled to Zimbabwe not only to observe the election process but also to understand how regular people and nongovernmental organizations in the southern African nation envisioned their future.

Most Zimbabweans communicated an overall sense that "this election more than any other before would create an environment that's more supportive" to a free and fair vote, noted Bomba.

Over the last decade, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe's unwavering determination to stay in power has given way to increasingly oppressive politics, flawed elections marred by violence, and a spiraling economic downturn.

Nonetheless, talks initiated last year between the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party and Mugabe's ZANU-PF -- mediated by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) -- had committed the contesting parties to a peaceful election and gained the opposition greater access to media.

The underlying optimism can also be attributed to peoples' overwhelming yearning for change, the advocates said.

In a country where one third of the population receives food aid and inflation stands at 150,000 percent, economic deterioration was the decisive mobilizing factor against the Mugabe regime this year, said Bomba.

Indeed, the people he spoke with simply did not want to continue the daily "struggle to have one or two meals a day, to have their kids go to school, to get fuel to go to a supermarket and buy bread."

As for these "bread and butter" questions, Bomba continued, "civic society felt the MDC was the formation that to the greatest extent carried their own aspirations."

Almost two weeks have passed since the Mar. 29 election, though, and Zimbabweans are still waiting on results in an increasingly tense and unpredictable environment.

"Now, with the level of uncertainty, there are four ways forward," said Lawson.

The first is a coalition or power-sharing government -- "something I have very little faith in," she continued, primarily because the MDC and ZANU-PF have both rejected the possibility of working together.

The second possible scenario is a run-off election. Although this is what the Zimbabwean constitution calls for if neither candidate receives 50 percent of the initial vote, "this doesn't look like it's on the radar screen at all" due to logistical reasons, said Lawson. Furthermore, the MDC said Thursday that it will boycott any run-off, claiming that it rightfully won the presidency in the first round of voting.

Another possibility, with much international support, is an SADC intervention. Zambia has scheduled an emergency meeting for Saturday, which may result in a resolution to bring forth "some sort of proxy government."

Finally, if Saturday's meeting fails and no recount or re-run is called, Lawson believes the MDC will start trying to move forward by seeking to convince people that it is in fact the government elect.

Although Lawson argued Mugabe's grip on power is "as weak as it's ever been," she added to the speculation a rumor that ZANU-PF will keep stalling the announcement of final results for as long as three to six months. During this time, the party would engage in various levels of campaigning, targeting certain sectors of the country and focusing heavily on MDC supporters.

Regardless of which scenario plays out, Lawson maintains Mugabe will certainly leave government with impunity, although this protection will not likely be extended to his associates.

Bomba, however, interjected that his "personal sense is that we're having a situation where Mugabe (has) staged a 'veto coup'...going against the outcome of the process of political participation."

As for now, Zimbabweans wait with anticipation as a local judge has said he will offer a ruling Monday on the release of election results.