Zimbabwe - ballots and bullets

Amidst the criticism of Thabo Mbeki and other Southern African leaders for their failure to prise power from the hands of Robert Mugabe, there is one shining light from the region and that is the Southern Africa Development Community.

It is SADC that brought about the crucial change at the last election. The election of a majority of anti-Mugabe MPs, the placing of Morgan Tsvangirai at the top of the presidential poll and, perhaps most surprising of all, the confirmation by the electoral commission of the twenty-three disputed results, came about only because SADC insisted that the results of the voting in every polling district be published at each polling station. This ensured that parties and observers alike were able to tally the figures for themselves rather than having to rely on the government's manipulated results.

Those of us who are often called upon to assist young democracies and to advise electoral commissions, are well aware that the publication of the voting figures in each polling station is a vital tool of transparency without which the whole electoral process can be subverted at the behest of the power brokers.

In addition to the local publication of the results, I also recommend that party agents and local observers be invited to sign the results sheet. At least two elections with which I was involved were rescued because the existence of these sheets with the signatures of local party agents enabled me to persuade party leaders that they could not reject results they did not like.

In one case - in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1992 - the splendid judge who chaired the electoral commission refused to accept the results from the provinces if the regional party officials would not sign the summaries. He authorised me to investigate and it was clear that the results signed locally were legitimate. I reported back to the judge who then told me I had to persuade the party leaders to accept the figures. I said that it was not in my job description but I would try! I then went and pushed my way past the assembled world press and sat down at the table with the leaders. I gave my monitoring report. They thanked me and waited for to go. I told them that I was not leaving until they had signed off the results. There followed an hour's argument before they finally accepted that they could not reject figures signed by their own local agents. They signed and the results were then declared by the electoral commission.

SADC's role is vital in the Zimbabwe situation. It is a federation of fourteen Southern African countries, formed in 1980. Being comprised of neighbouring African states, and with representatives nominated by African governments, its legitimacy cannot be denied. It is not like Britain whose interventions can be painted by Zimbabwe as the utterances of neo-colonialists who want still to control them. The situation in Zimbabwe is so abysmal that such allegations are now wearing very thin but the British Government would be wise to avoid statements that are so provocative as to be counter-productive.

The end of Mugabe may well be in sight. It has been a long time coming. In the 1970s, when Mugabe was in prison, I was engaged in under cover work with liberation movements. In those days ZANU was depicted as a party without a leader and Joshua Nkomo, of ZAPU, as a leader without a party. On his release Mugabe assumed the ZANU leadership and Nkomo was increasingly sidelined. Now we have a humanitarian disaster presided over by the same ZANU-PF leader, but thanks to effective electoral practices forced on him by his Southern African peers, his end may be in sight.

Intimidation and pressure may still distort the second round run off poll but the most effective support all those concerned about the future of Zimbabwe can give is to enable the opposition parties, and in particular SADC, to have the maximum number of observers at the polling stations.

Michael Meadowcroft was Liberal MP for Leeds West, 1983-87, and since then has led or been a member of forty-five missions to thirty-five new and emerging democracies.