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James Duddridge MP: Zimbabwe's elections must be free and fair

Duddridge James NEWJames Duddridge is the Member of Parliament for Rochford and Southend East. Follow James on Twitter.

Western policy makers are sometime criticised for expecting the same standards of accountability and transparency within developing nations that they would expect within our own.  

Yet, there are circumstances, however developed or not a country is, when the rule of law simply must be upheld and we have a responsibility to ensure it is.  

Yesterday, Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, used his first presidential decree since the formation of the Government of National Unity in 2009 to bypass parliament and declare the date of the next election as the 31 July.

In one simple and straight-forward act, months of political progress in the country is at risk of being reversed.

The citizens of Zimbabwe have become far too use to the unlawful, undemocratic and illegitimate practices carried out by President Robert Mugabe. It is of little surprise therefore that this decision has understandably sparked outrage across Zimbabwe, as well as within the SADC region.

What is concerning to me however is the reaction, or lack thereof, from the international community.

Although last week the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), led by Jacob Zuma, called an emergency summit to help pave the way for a harmonised election within Zimbabwe, that summit was postponed, after Mugabe declared himself unavailable. This was a major blow, given that SADC is regarded by many as the only option left to resolve an increasingly tense political stand-off.

Earlier this year, Zimbabwe was seen to have taken a major step forward in its democratic progress. It passed a new constitution, voted for by the people of Zimbabwe.

In a sign of major progress to the international world, this new constitution provided hope for a new democratic process, it gave investors reassurance in a stable economic environment, and, most importantly of all, it gave the people of Zimbabwe belief in their future and reassurance that their struggles had not been in vain.  

The basis of the new constitution was the requirement for the successful implementation of new reforms, prior to any election taking.

The reforms were largely focused upon security sector independence, to prevent Mugabe from sending his security forces to assault and intimidate the electorate. Media reforms, to try and ensure the state newspapers showed at least some neutrality, rather than simply using tax revenues to write abuse about their opponents. And finally, and probably most importantly, a proper voter registration process and audit has been required, in an attempt to rid of the current list of deceased voters.

Although this is still to happen – the voter registration process has now started – there is now no possible way for the agreed reforms to take hold before the date proclaimed by Robert Mugabe, 31 July. If elections do take place then, it would demonstrate disregard to the constitution.

The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai, have made it clear that if the new constitution is not abided to, and the necessary reforms fail to be properly carried out, then they will boycott the polls. I expect the other opposition parties will follow suit. It is my belief that they would be completely in their right to do so.

Despite all this, a softening stance towards Mugabe’s regime from the international community is apparent, particularly from the US where delivery of a vaguely credible election will seem to suffice their requirements. I find this deeply concerning.

Although I have been fortunate enough to have had many enjoyable experiences in Zimbabwe, and spent much time with its people, my feelings towards Zimbabwe are not based upon that – they are based solely upon respect for the rule of law and the need for a legitimate democratic process.  

Any elected official within the international community, with a genuine interest in the future of Zimbabwe, should understand that we cannot just sit back and pretend to recognise a process as legitimate, when the reality is anything but. To do so would be a neglect of our professional responsibilities, no matter how convenient it may be for some.


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