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Democratic space narrows ahead of 2023 polls



AS Zimbabwe inches closer to the 2023 general election, the democratic space is narrowing as authoritarian rule takes a toll on the political opposition and civil society.


In December alone, critical developments that undermine democracy have unfolded.

Most notably, the draconian Private Voluntary Organisations (PVOs) Bill was passed by Parliament.

Zanu PF legislators shrugged off or ignored wide-ranging criticism by the public during nationwide hearings and proceeded to vote for the Bill in the National Assembly.

 The discredited law will give the government unfettered discretionary power to over-regulate and interfere in non-government organisations’ operations.

 For instance, it will give the authorities unchecked power to designate any PVO as “high risk” or “vulnerable” to terrorism abuse, thereby allowing the government to revoke a PVO’s registration and remove or replace its leadership.

In addition, to avoid civil penalties, PVOs would be required to receive approval from the government for any “material change” including changes to its management and internal constitution.

Furthermore, PVOs would be prohibited from supporting or opposing any political party or candidate.

While the government claims that the PVO Amendment Bill is necessary to ensure counterterrorism and anti-money laundering, there are already laws in place to address these matters.

Before the dust had settled over passing of the Bill early this month, another assault on democracy occurred.

Police banned an event organised by a citizen in Masvingo to plant trees because he had invited opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) leader Neslon Chamisa.

The tree-planting event was scheduled to be held in ward 4, at Takaona homestead in Gutu North constituency.

The false reason given by the police in banning the event was as ridiculous as it was kindergarten.

 “We can’t allow two parties to hold political gatherings in the same ward on the same date. There will be violence. Our duty as police is to maintain peace and order; hence we had to stop one party from holding the meeting,” said police officer commanding Masvingo East district Joachim Mambure.

A few days later, police in Harare issued another ban on two end-of-year rallies at which CCC leader Nelson Chamisa was set to address the party followers in Budiriro suburb and Chitungwiza.

 The end-of-year celebrations had been set for 17 December.

 “Your notification to hold the above mentioned rally was received, and the event was not sanctioned,” said the police without giving any reason for the ban.

Earlier in the year, several other rallies had been banned but going close to the elections, the expectation was that the situation would change, especially after the visit of the Commonwealth team to assess the country’s preparedness to re-join the bloc.

During the visit, Harare had repeatedly promised to uphold tenets of democracy.

Analysts say for a country that purports to be a constitutional democracy, Zimbabwe is taking the wrong direction.

No country can claim to be entrenching democracy while placing NGOs under the noose and banning the activities of the political opposition.

With the PVO Bill having already been passed, NGOs are vowing to oppose it when it is passed into law, which may essentially lead to civil disobedience.

Crisis Coalition of Zimbabwe spokesperson Obert Masaraure told The NewsHawks: “The Coalition will not submit itself to authoritarian rule. To that end, the Coalition will never register as a PVO, we will defy all provisions of the repressive piece of legislation.”

“The Coalition will engage citizens and push back against authoritarianism.  We will make dictatorship costly for the government of Emmerson Mnangagwa.”

Chamisa, in a tweet, expressed his exasperation over the flagrant trampling of democracy.

 “Our end of year rallies are banned. Police have prohibited our two rallies this weekend after stopping our tree planting programme earlier this week.

“I am told Zanu PF fears the bumper crowds and our big rallies will send the wrong message to the world,” he said.

The ban on opposition events has continued since government enacted its draconian Public Order and Security Act (Posa) which was replaced by an equally repressive Maintenance of Peace and Order Act (Mopa).

Since January this year, the number of banned CCC events number almost 20 and this does not project Zimbabwe well ahead of the 2023 general elections, sparking fears of heightened repression in months ahead.

In the few cases CCC rallies have been sanctioned, Zanu PF thugs have physically attacked and even killed opposition supporters.

Recently a video circulated in which Zanu PF supporters literally called for the assassination of Chamisa and people who will mourn him.

“Forward with the death of Chamisa, down with people who will mourn him,” chanted leader of the group and his compatriots repeated after him.

No arrests have been made but opposition MP Job Sikhala, who was charged for inciting violence in Chitungwiza after the murder of opposition member Moreblessing Ali, is now clocking 200 days in pre-trial detention.

His latest bid for bail failed and he appears destined to spend Christmas in prison.

Veteran opposition official David Coltart, in an interview with The NewsHawks, said: “The reality is that democratic space has been narrowing since the 2018 elections, going to the violence of 2019 and we have seen a systematic move by Zanu PF to shut down the largest opposition party, CCC.”

“The sustained assault on the members of the opposition and the arrest of MP Job Sikhala as well as undermining of the judiciary have also narrowed the democratic space. The conduct of Zec [Zimbabwe  Electoral Commission], which has shown where its alligence lies, is also worrying,” he said.

He bemoaned the unlawful restriction to access to the voters’ roll as another indictment on the country’s purported democracy and warned that credible elections will happen when President Emmerson Mnangagwa controls Zec.

“Mr Mnangagwa knows the real threat that lies ahead if Chamisa wins the elections such as exposure of their human rights abuses going back to 1980 and so they are prepared to do anything to stranglehold on power. As we go towards the next elections, I see more efforts being done to prevent the will of the people triumphing,” added Coltart.

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