Jim Matopo | Understandably there is much excitement both inside and outside Zimbabwe about the prospects for change and in particular the possibility of a free and fair election for the first time in a generation. Flags are being waved, bright party colours flashed all over the place, hips are swaying , hands clapping and voices ululating. Hopeful prospective candidates are springing up all over the place like fresh flowers after new rain.

Old party programmes are being dusted off and new ideas added. All sorts of promises are being made in the usual style of up -and -coming politicians: renewed public services, an end to endemic corruption, more jobs, better pay, foreign investment, a chicken in every family pot. Even the Crocodile announces that Zimbabwe is open for business again and just waiting to welcome all those rich (and gullible?) foreign businessmen.

But be careful! First things first. Plans for a long-term reform of a sadly misused country are important and necessary, but the immediate goal must be to secure a proper electoral process. Don’t forget that the Crocodile has plenty of training under his old tutor Bob in how to fake and fudge elections- ballot box stuffing, dead voters, even ballot papers with vanishing ink (if Bob is to be believed)- these are all elementary tricks for him and his ZANU-PF henchmen. Then of course there is the fact that he controls a pliant and docile press and TV and that he has largescale financial backing from his Chinese friends….

The opposition needs to concentrate its attention very heavily in the short term on securing a reasonably fair electoral process, and in taking what measures it can to neutralize the ZANU-PF bag of tricks. The essential step in this direction is to concentrate all efforts on influencing foreign governments and media to insist on outside monitoring and surveillance at every stage of the electoral process. Outside observers should be monitoring the electoral process from the beginning- right from the establishment of updated electoral rolls and elimination of dead voters or duplicate voters. And the monitors should not come just from complacent SADC or African Union countries (many of whom are willing to turn a blind eye to practices they use in their own elections). The opposition should lobby single-mindedly in its contacts with overseas governments, international organisations and NGOs to ensure that the monitoring is as widely-based as possible. EU participation is essential, and a Commonwealth presence would also be useful, particularly as the Crocodile is hoping to be allowed back into that club.

Monitoring should not cover just the vote itself, but also all aspects of the build-up to the vote- including monitoring of bullying by police, army or ZANU-PF thugs at election rallies, pressure on civil servants to vote for the government candidates etc. The international community should be asked to help ensure equal access to media outlets, whether TV, radio, newspaper or social media outlets. If necessary independent journalists should be financed by the international community throughout the electoral period to provide a counter-balance to the state media.

During the election itself, external monitors should be present in each polling station to ensure privacy and absence of intimidation, and these monitors should be present during the sealing and transport of the voting boxes to local or regional counting centres. Needless to say the monitors should be present during the vote count, randomly checking the tellers, and should be required to certify the validity of the count in each centre. Representatives of all main parties should be allowed to observe the count. Unduly high percentages of spoilt papers or blank votes should be checked on a sample basis by the monitors for fraud. The final results should be checked centrally and certified by the leaders of the monitoring teams, who must put their own expertise and honesty on the line in this respect..

The government will no doubt seek to wiggle its way out of stringent election- monitoring by arguing that this is an infringement of sovereignty or that there is not time to make all these preparations before an election, or that it is too expensive. The opposition should not allow itself to be bamboozled by such talk. A properly organized and fair election is an essential prerequisite for making a new start in Zimbabwe; without it the present regime will continue to bluff and cheat its way into retaining power for itself and its cronies just as it has done on more than one occasion in the recent past. The process may be expensive, but donors must be persuaded that it is a good investment in the long-term stability of the country. The process may take time, but this is time well-invested, and with the support of the international community it can surely be organized in a reasonable timescale. If a few months’ delay is the price for a well-organised election, this is a price worth paying

So we should ask Zimbabwe’s wisest opposition politicians to put the intoxicating cut and thrust of policy discussion and personality politics on one side for the moment, and to focus on the most urgent practical priority- making every effort to ensure that a free, fair election does take place. Remember what happened to Tsvangerai. Remember your strong point: the Crocodile and his cronies are desperate to get international recognition for their coup regime. They need an election for this, but hope to fake it like last time. If the opposition doesn’t get an internationally guaranteed and monitored electoral process it should simply boycott the pseudo-election peddled by the Crocodile. The risk of this outcome will surely force him to make the necessary concessions, and hopefully will start Zimbabwe on the long upward climb to recovery.