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Wednesday, 6 February, 2002, 17:24 GMT
Analysis: Zimbabwe's lessons for Africa
Police guarding ballot boxes
Zimbabwe has had regular elections for 22 years
By the BBC's Elizabeth Blunt

No one is suggesting that the upcoming vote in Zimbabwe is going to be the worst of Africa's elections.

Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai
Zimbabwe's elections will be a genuine contest

First, and most important, the electors have a real choice, between the incumbent and at least one strong opposition contender.

The opposition succeeded in getting a "No" vote in a constitutional referendum two years ago, and took almost half the elected seats in last year's parliamentary elections.

This is a genuine contest, and both the ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are determined to win it.

That puts it a whole world away from past elections in Africa, some of them blatantly rigged despite the fact that there was only a single candidate.

Ruling party machines

In Chad in the 1980s I saw polling officials quite openly putting "Yes" slips in the envelopes before handing them to voters to drop in the box.

Zambia's former President Kenneth Kaunda
Zambia's Kaunda was eventually voted out of office

When challenged, they explained that since everybody wanted to vote for the president, they were simply making things easier for them - "No" slips were available on request.

Ruling party machines were then so strong that even when multi-party states became more common, it was still assumed that an incumbent president could not lose.

That assumption has now vanished.

Kenneth Kaunda was eventually voted out of power in Zambia, Abdou Diouf in Senegal and Jerry Rawlings in Ghana.

All accepted the verdict of the voters, and bowed out gracefully.

This does not mean that all African elections are perfect.

New generation

There was blatant rigging during the election that brought President Olusegun Obasanjo to power in Nigeria.

Former US President Jimmy Carter - who led a team of observers - said there was such a disparity between number of voters observed and the number of votes cast that it was impossible to know who had won.

President Robert Mugabe
Mugabe says he brought democracy to Zimbabwe

Among Zimbabwe's close neighbours, the last elections in Malawi were very controversial, and the counting and tallying in Zambia recently was chaotic.

But the new generation of African presidents would rather see these as unfortunate aberrations.

South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, Ghana's John Kufuor and Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal are all men whose democratic credentials are not in doubt.

Along with Olusegun Obasanjo they are trying to promote a new image of Africa as a partner for the developed world, as a continent which is open, democratic, transparent and well-governed.

That is why good elections in a high-profile country like Zimbabwe are important to them.

Zimbabwe has established a democratic tradition, which new legislation is threatening to erode.

If these elections are less free than past contests, and marked by an increase in violence, thuggery and intimidation, it will reflect badly, not just on Zimbabwe itself, but on the whole continent.

See also:

06 Feb 02 | Africa
Zimbabwe's climate of fear
03 Feb 02 | Africa
Mugabe opponent enters fray
04 Feb 02 | Africa
Mugabe evades EU sanctions
08 Jan 02 | Africa
Zimbabwe's controversial bills
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