Newspapers in Britain and southern Africa overflowed with reports of violent intimidation and electoral fraud in Zimbabwe perpetrated by President Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF Party against the Movement for Democratic Change opposition and other political foes. Zimbabwe’s parliamentary election, scheduled for June 23-24, marks the first time that Zanu-PF has faced a viable opposition in the 20 years since independence.
Britain’s Sunday Telegraph claimed that the violence has prevented opposition candidates from campaigning openly in most of the 120 constituencies. There were reports of thousands of citizens having their identity papers destroyed by government supporters, preventing them from voting, and South African papers claimed Zimbabweans are fleeing into South Africa—the Sunday Times said 16,000 Zimbabweans were seized crossing the border one day last week, compared with the usual 15 to 20. In many rural areas, voters are forced into nighttime pungwes (re-education camps), where they are forced to repeat Zanu-PF slogans.
The politically motivated beatings and sexual violence appear to carry police sanction. A Zimbabwean journalist told Britain’s Observer, “At least 30 Zimbabweans have been murdered in cold blood and many more raped and assaulted for their political beliefs while the police have stood by with arms folded. Whatever they do from now until the election, I doubt they will ever recover from the damage their partisan role has done to their reputation and image.”
The Financial Times reported that the arrival last week of foreign election observers had little noticeable effect on the “campaign of terror.” MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai told Britain’s Independent that the monitors had arrived too late: “They are too few and too timid and they do not work at night when attacks take place on our supporters.” Fearing for their own safety, many monitors have refused to visit occupied farms where violence has been widespread since March. Several papers also noted a government ruling last Wednesday that downgraded the powers of Zimbabwean election monitors. An American observer told London’s Sunday Times, “If the government is prepared to destroy the economy of the country, kill dozens of people and torture thousands more in order to stay in power, they’re hardly going to draw the line at ballot-stuffing. That’s why they want guys like us out of the way.”
Despite the violence, support for the MDC, which was formed only seven months ago, appears to be strong. An opinion poll published in Zimbabwe’s pro-MDC Daily News predicted that the opposition party would win 70 of the 120 contested parliamentary seats. Because Mugabe appoints a further 30 of the 150 members of parliament, his party needs to win just 46 seats to retain its majority. (It had 147 seats in the last parliament.) The MDC won the battle of the rallies Saturday, when at least 20,000 attended a gathering in Harare featuring Tsvangirai, while a few kilometers away Mugabe drew only 5,000. (The FT likened the mood at the MDC rally to African National Congress meetings in South Africa just before the collapse of apartheid in its “mixture of hope, anger and suspicion.”) Mugabe repeated his attacks on whites, Britain, and the business community. According to South Africa’s Sunday Independent, in an attempt to recapture “the old revolutionary fervour” of the battle for independence, the president “spent almost an hour recounting the history of British colonialism and the unfairness of its rule, leaving only a few minutes to the country’s economic crisis.”
The Financial Gazette, which bills itself as “southern Africa’s leading business and financial newspaper,” blamed Zimbabwe’s economic woes—60 percent inflation, a huge budget deficit, and fuel and currency shortages—on government mismanagement: “Corruption and graft in the government have spread like a debilitating cancer while its chief perpetrators have gone unpunished; court judgments have been trashed because of political expediency and social and medical services have crumbled while vital taxpayers’ income is diverted to fund the Congo war.” The paper presented the election as a choice between “the forces of violence and economic ruin and those who possibly could bring back sanity and democratic values.”
Russian media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky—whose company, Media-MOST, includes the newspaper Segodnya, Itogi magazine, NTV television, and the Moscow Echo radio station—was released from prison Friday after being charged with fraud. The charges relate to the huge profits Gusinsky made from the privatization of the St. Petersburg TV company Russian Video shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. Many papers pointed out that the Russian Video deal was no different from hundreds of other such transactions that led to the creation of the band of Russian oligarchs who currently dominate Russian business—except Gusinsky’s media properties openly criticize the Kremlin. An op-ed in the Moscow Times observed, “Whatever reservations one may have about Media-MOST’s news coverage and Gusinsky’s role in the nation’s politics, there are no doubts that the sole purpose of his arrest—and the cynicism with which it was conducted—was to shut down his media outlets and send a message to the entire journalistic community in Russia: Those who dare criticize the Kremlin should watch out.”
Editorial writers suggested that Gusinsky was targeted because he is a leader of Russia’s Jewish community, and noted that on the day he was arrested, an ultra-Orthodox Lubavitcher was named chief rabbi of Russia, replacing a man with close links to Gusinsky and the Russian Jewish Congress, of which he is chairman. The Financial Times said Putin “may have calculated that jailing one prominent critic would send a warning to other potential enemies to stay in line. He could also claim to the international community that Russia’s formal separation of powers leaves him unable to intervene in the judicial processes. If so, the international outcry and the unexpected rallying of other oligarchs suggest he has miscalculated. For the first time, the former KGB spy may have betrayed a lack of political experience. But if he did not endorse the action, as he has tried to claim, it suggests a lack of control over an administration in which some authoritarian tendencies are resurfacing from below.”
The Korea Herald reports that players in the Women’s Korean Basketball League hope this will be their last season in Spandex bodysuits. One player complained, “It is really hard to go to the bathroom during a game. And you can’t wipe the sweat off your hands when you need to.” Another told the paper, “I feel like I am playing in the nude.” The league introduced the skintight suits in 1998 to give the league “a fresh image,” but a member of a fan group petitioning for a bodysuit ban said, “The women’s bodies are not the attraction, the game is. The uniforms are the reason why more young people don’t come to the games. The league only wants to attract older men.”