Morgan Tsvangirai, the principal challenger to Robert Mugabe for the presidency of Zimbabwe, has said a credible election next week is all but impossible and lashed out at the head of the African Union for backing his rival.
The prime minister said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was perpetuating the narrative of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and distorting his complaints of vote-rigging in a way that “puts into question her integrity as an impartial observer”.
Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), takes on Mugabe in a long-awaited election on Wednesday amid fears of a repeat of the 2008 poll that led to economic meltdown and violence in which more than 200 people died.
Western monitors have been banned from the process again, so the role of the AU’s observation mission is crucial. At a press conference in Harare on Friday, Dlamini-Zuma – ex-wife of the South African president, Jacob Zuma – welcomed the peaceful atmosphere of the campaign so far and claimed that Tsvangirai and other candidates had not raised irregularities with her.
“None of them used the word ‘rigging’,” she said. “They might tell you what you want to hear … We don’t deal with rumours. We don’t deal with speculation.”
An hour later across town, Tsvangirai gave a very different version of events, claiming the MDC had uncovered evidence of cheating in a special vote held early for thousands of security sector employees.
Brandishing a document at the lectern, he said: “Yesterday we found out that some ballots which were passed under the special vote found themselves in dustbins. Why? Because this ballot supposedly is voted for MDC. So it must find itself in the dustbin and not in the counting station … So those who voted for Morgan Tsvangirai must find themselves in the dustbin.”
He complained that his party had not been given access to the voter list, as required by law, and his supporters faced intimidation due to the “militarisation” of the vote. He continued: “What we have seen on the ground so far is clear evidence that the credibility of this election is at serious risk. There is clear evidence of manipulation and a desperate attempt to subvert the people’s will. We have engaged observer missions and given them our position on some of these issues.”
Tsvangirai, who joined Mugabe in a unity government after the 2008 election, was asked why Dlamini-Zuma had told the world’s media that he made no mention of vote-rigging during their meeting. Bridling with indignation, he snapped back: “You ask her. That’s a Zanu-PF narrative: endorse an outcome which then supports the Zanu-PF outcome.”
In an apparent reference to Dlamini-Zuma’s close political ties with Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president whose intervention in Zimbabwe angered the MDC in 2008, he continued: “You know her background. She doesn’t know.
“It is a very unfortunate position to take, to accuse me of lying when I had a full meeting in which she was there, a number of her own delegation were, a number of my staffers were there and I pointed out these issues to her. Now, the question is why would she want to distort a meeting in which everyone participated. It puts into question her integrity as an impartial observer to this process.”
The AU has long been criticised as bureaucratic and impotent in solving the continent’s conflicts, for example in seeking a peaceful solution to the 2011 uprising in Libya. As the leader of a liberation movement against colonialism, Mugabe still commands wide respect and support in many African countries. Enemies of Tsvangirai, meanwhile, seek to portray the prime minister as a puppet of the west.
During a tumultuous decade Tsvangirai has been beaten, arrested, almost thrown from a 10th-floor window and, according to many observers, had two election victories snatched away from him. There are signs that on Wednesday it could happen again.
“Is it the same story that has characterised Zimbabwean elections or have we matured as a democracy?” Tsvangirai asked. “Obviously, with what I have highlighted, it is a far cry from the ideal.”
Asked to describe his emotions at this critical moment, the 61-year-old replied: “Am I frustrated? Actually I’m very bullish about the outcome of this election. It will indicate to you how resilient the people of Zimbabwe are. Indeed, it will surprise you in spite of the violence, the shenanigans that are taking place.”
He added: “Zanu-PF cannot win an election, never won an election, but they have found ways of retaining power against the people’s wishes. That is not democracy. So actually I feel emboldened by the fact that we have resisted this dictatorship for all these years using democratic means and we have resisted their attempt to try to label us as a violent party, as people who want to get power by whatever means.
“We have stuck to our principle of having democratic change. The support of the people, who have remained resilient over the last 14 years, gives us that encouragement.”