Today is a historic day for Zimbabwe. For the first time in 38 years the name Robert Mugabe will not feature on the Presidential ballot paper.
This election will also be a first for the main opposition party, the MDC Alliance, who are fielding a new presidential candidate. At 40 years of age (in a country where the average age of the Cabinet is 72), Nelson Chamisa has taken the country by storm with his energy and drive.
Most importantly, this is the first election in over 20 years when people are hopeful of free and fair vote that will reflect the will of the people.
The Trócaire team left the office in an excited mood on Friday evening. The sense of anticipation is palpable. There is an overriding feeling of hope amongst them all.
It is also the first time in recent memory that the lead up to election day has been peaceful. Bar some incidents - most worryingly the bomb at a ZANU PF rally a month ago – there has been little violence.
Harare is awash with election posters, leaflets and canvassers. Pickup trucks parked on roundabouts carry images of aspiring candidates painted across them. Catchy jingles on radio remind people that “their vote is their secret, their vote is their right”. I keep finding myself humming along.
I passed a group of street vendors gathered around an independent candidate on Thursday evening. They listened intently as she laid out her manifesto with her bright yellow banners ’Be the Change’ surrounding them. Further up the road, there are two large campaign placards for Pastor Ivan Mawarire, urging voters to vote him onto the Local Council. Only 12 months ago, he was forced into exile in South Africa after releasing videos calling for a new Zimbabwe and naming and shaming the ruling party.
It’s hard to believe so much has changed in terms of openness and freedom of speech since the ousting of Robert Mugabe last November. When I arrived in Zimbabwe two and a half years ago, you had to whisper conversations that can now be had openly on Twitter, Facebook and in person.
There is a sense of hope in Zimbabwe, a country desperately in need of reform and progress.
Trócaire and our partners have been playing an important role in the run up to these elections and on Election Day itself. Several partners, such as the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and Zimbabwe Peace Project, are fielding observers to monitor and report any intimidation or harassment near polling stations. It’s no mean task with over 12,000 polling stations nationwide. They will be in rural remote polling stations and in known ‘hot spots’ where violence occurred in the past. Their presence is vital.
Another of our partners, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, has taken repeated court cases to challenge elements of the Zimbabwe Electoral Law that were unconstitutional. By doing so, they made huge gains.
On Election Day these and other partner organisations will be feeding information from the ground into a ‘Situation Room’ from which press statements will be issued on what has been observed. This will be incredibly important in a context where people have often voted in fear or been coerced to vote a particular way. Ballot papers have mysteriously multiplied in previous elections.
While the overall atmosphere has been totally different to previous years, there have been ongoing concerns over the process, from the impartiality of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to people receiving text messages telling them to vote for the ruling party. Some local chiefs in rural areas have been warning people to vote for the ruling party or they will be “found out”. This intimidation has been widely reported. Whether this affects the result is yet to be seen.
What is clear is that today is truly momentous, particularly for the majority of the population who are under 35 years of age and who until last November only knew of one President.
Trócaire and our partners will be keeping a close eye as the day unfolds.