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Zimbabwe's Very American Election

April 7, 2005
By Gene C. Gerard

Last week, the African nation of Zimbabwe held parliamentary elections. It was viewed, both within the country and by foreign observers, as a referendum on the country's elderly and dictatorial ruler, President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since 1980. Mr. Mugabe's party, The Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, won 71 seats in the election, while the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, garnered only 39. Both the opposition party and independent observers have accused President Mugabe of stealing the election.

Morgan Tsvangarai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, said Mr. Mugabe won only through the use of intimidation tactics and vote-rigging. The U.S. State Department called the election "seriously flawed." And Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice stated, "the election was not free and fair." Yet ironically, it appears as if Zimbabwe's election was very American-like, if our election in 2004 is any indication.

President Mugabe and his party attempted to manipulate the media. His government essentially runs all media outlets in Zimbabwe. Consequently, coverage of his administration and his party's campaign was heavily biased. Also, a law was enacted in November that made it illegal to practice journalism without a government-issued license, and subjected anyone guilty of this offense to a prison sentence. In February, his government barred foreign journalists from reporting on the impending election without governmental approval, which was rarely given.

Since our own election last November, we've learned that the Bush administration also attempted to manipulate the media. Various journalists have admitted to being paid by the government to promote President Bush's agenda. In addition, the administration has admitted to creating fake "news" stories, with actors portraying reporters, to promote President Bush's policies. The stories were distributed to television media outlets for use in their nightly news segments.

President Mugabe's government attempted to disenfranchise voters. Absentee ballots were only mailed to civil servants, diplomats, and uniformed members of the military and security forces living abroad. Yet there are over one million of Zimbabwe's citizens in other African countries. Likewise, the Bush administration took great efforts to ensure that military personnel serving abroad had every opportunity to vote. But other Americans living abroad, particularly in Europe, had enormous difficulties obtaining absentee ballots in time to vote, if at all. One report of Americans living in Rome indicated that as many as 90 percent of those who requested the ballots did not receive them in time to vote.

According to nongovernmental organizations which monitored Zimbabwe's election, there were significant problems at polling stations. Election officers who were appointed by the Mugabe government were accused of barring the opposition party's voting monitors from polling stations. As a result, by some reports, as many as ten percent of Zimbabweans who attempted to vote were turned away, on the grounds that they lacked proper identification, or were voting in the wrong district. Additionally, when an election complaint was lodged, there were not enough independent judges to rule on the complaints, given that most had been appointed by President Mugabe or were members of his party.

In our election last November there were various complaints of problems at voting polls. Many of these complaints occurred in Ohio. Republican polling monitors in Ohio outnumbered Democratic monitors by almost two-to-one. Consequently, when Republican monitors objected to someone attempting to vote, there were not enough Democratic monitors to refute the objection, resulting in the disenfranchisement of some voters. Also, virtually all voting complaints in Ohio were resolved by their Secretary of State, J. Kenneth Blackwell, who was also the co-chairman of President Bush's re-election campaign in Ohio, and could hardly be regarded as independent.

Other similarities between the two elections are equally compelling. In the 2002 Zimbabwe elections, President Mugabe's supporters were accused of killing hundreds of opponents. In order to demonstrate that the elections last week were fair, he invited hundreds of foreign observers to watch the elections. After our questionable election in 2000, the U.S. State Department, for the first time ever, allowed the United Nations to officially monitor the 2004 election.

President Mugabe's party bused-in loyal audiences whenever they held a campaign rally, in order to pack their campaign sites. The Bush/Cheney '04 Campaign never allowed the general public to attend any of President Bush's rallies last fall. All attendees were required to have an invitation, and the invitations were only mailed to registered Republicans in the county in which Mr. Bush was speaking.

Both presidents manipulated the electorate in grotesque ways in order to win their elections. By most estimates, half of all Zimbabweans are undernourished. Starvation is a sad and common part of life in that country. But last year, President Mugabe ordered the World Food Program and Save the Children Federation to discontinue distributing food aid.

He announced that the country had become self-sufficient, and that his government would now allocate food resources. This forced Zimbabweans to rely almost entirely on the government for food. Consequently, Mr. Mugabe's government began to distribute food only to those who had a voter registration card showing that they were members of his ruling party. In fact, the party routinely handed out food at their rallies.

Similarly, President Bush played on the fear and worries of Americans in order to ensure his re-election. His campaign relentlessly insisted that another terrorist attack was inevitable if not imminent, and that only Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney could save us. They portrayed Senator Kerry as weak on defense and confused on national security. Vice President Cheney infamously stated in a town hall meeting in Ohio last October that the greatest threat we now faced was a nuclear or chemical weapons attack in one of our cities, and that Mr. Kerry was not tough enough to prevent it.

The Bush administration, and indeed many Americans, love to hold up America as a beacon to the rest of the world. They insist that we are the ultimate democracy to which totalitarian governments, third-world nations, and banana republics should attempt to emulate. If that's the case, Zimbabwe is already very American.

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