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Former US Ambassador to Zimbabwe: Notable Improvement in Election Climate Ahead of Crucial Polls

Interview with Ambassador Johhnie Carson
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Former United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson has described Zimbabwe’s upcoming July 30th elections as “enormously historic” being held for the first time without former President Robert Mugabe and his arch rival, late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who succumbed to cancer early this year.

In an exclusive interview with Blessing Zulu of VOA's Zimbabwe Service, Ambassador Carson, who is part of the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) joint election observation mission to Zimbabwe, says compared to the previous elections under Mr. Mugabe marred by violence, there has been a significant improvement.

Blessing Zulu (BZ): Ambassador Carson, what’s your initial assessment of the environment ahead of the Monday elections?

Ambassador Johnnie Carson (Amb. Carson): Well, let me just say this is an enormously historic election for Zimbabwe. It is the first time that (former) President Robert Mugabe will not be on the ballot since independence in 1980. And moreover than that, the former leading candidate, opposition candidate, and leader of the MDC Morgan Tsvangirai is not going to be on the ballot, tragically, he passed away six months ago. This election amounts to a new beginning for Zimbabwe, and one which, I think there is a great deal of optimism on all sides, but mostly the people. Of the current election environment here in Harare, is that this is actually the last official day of campaigning, prior to the July 30 election on Monday. Unlike many years in the past, and unlike the last three elections, the opposition has been able to campaign freely across the country, including in many areas where they were previously not allowed to campaign in past parliamentary and presidential elections. So, the campaign environment has been a significant improvement over years past, and there has been remarkably little violence in the campaign. And there has been very little over harassment or intimidation of political politicians on either side of the spectrum. So in that regard, it’s good and of course there are international election observers here for the first time in many years, probably since the early 2000s, and so that is a very good thing as well. So there are some good signs here, but there is also a very long and deep history of electoral violence both pre and post elections.

BZ: But the opposition has been complaining that they are not happy with the way the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is conducting the elections.

Amb. Carson: The opposition has in fact complained about some of the decisions that have been made by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. They have complained about the way the ballot has been developed. They have complained and wanted to have better information about the printing of the ballots and the use of the inks on some of the inks on the ballot. They have also complained about the secrecy of the ballot and how the tabulations would be handled. That has clearly been a part of their concern.

BZ: Would you consider those grievances genuine?

Amb. Carson: Well, I think it’s important that the allegations and concerns made by all the parties be listened to and adjudicated fairly, and based on factual information. So it is important that ZEC, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission look very, very closely at all the concerns, of all the political parties.

BZ: The United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, said in a statement, and I quote, “We remain concerned at the increasing number of reports, particularly in some rural areas of voter intimidation, electoral violence, harassment and coercion.” Are you hearing some of these concerns from those who you have deployed?

Amb. Carson: Well, I can say that there are some residual concerns that people have raised. We mentioned already that the opposition has in fact complained about the ballot, the secrecy of the ballot, and the way the count, the accuracy of any account of any polling result. So those issues are issues that need to be observed and looked at very, very carefully.

BZ: The United States House of Representatives has passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Amendment Act (ZIDERA) ahead of the July 30 harmonized elections, saying that the bill is a call for free, fair elections as well as reforms. Going forward, how do you see Washington and Harare’s relations, going?

Amb. Carson: Well, I think that it can be said that Congresswoman Karen Bass, who is a sponsor of that legislation is one of the co-leaders of the joint National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI) delegation, so she is here with us on this important mission. We also expect that Senator (Jeff) Flake from Arizona will also be here to observe the election as a separate, individual, senatorial (not clear). I think that the legislation, as Congresswoman Bass pointed out to several people this morning is meant to encourage a positive election in Zimbabwe, encourages the government and electoral commission and those responsible for managing the elections to hold a credible, transparent, inclusive and peaceful election. An election in which each individual Zimbabwean feels free to go to the poll, without fear of intimidation, harassment or violence, to cast his or her vote. And that it is important that the election commission do a responsible, and credible job in tallying the vote and announcing the appropriate and results based on the population’s decision. So it is important that that legislation, as I understand it, is meant to encourage the government to and the election commission to hold a responsible, transparent and inclusive election, not to have a repeat of the, of the terrible elections that occurred in 2013, 2008 and previously.

BZ: But ruling Zanu-PF officials are saying those are like pre-conditions that they do not agree with, saying that sanctions must just be scrapped because they are responsible for the economic collapse?

Amb. Carson: Well, I don’t want to get into the issue of the sanctions. Most of the sanctions that are in place here, are sanctions that have been placed on individuals, so they are individual sanctions, not so much country sanctions.

BZ: And, Ambassador Carson, any plans to meet Mr. Mugabe? I know the relationship was at times acrimonious?

Amb. Carson: Well, President Mugabe has in fact been very quiet during most of this campaign. I have no intentions of going out of my way to meet him while I am here. I can’t say anymore than that. I have not reached out to him, and he has not reached out to me. And if I stay as busy as I have been over the last several of days, I don’t think I will have an opportunity to do so.

BZ: But have you met President Mnangagwa and other opposition leaders?

Amb. Carson: We are in the process of doing so right now. I can say that members of the IRI/NDI delegation and senior leadership did in fact have a useful meeting with President Mnangagwa, and the foreign minister and one of his vice presidents, earlier today. We are of course making every effort to meet with as many opposition leaders as possible and we have met with a number of them from several of the main opposition parties, and we expect that today and tomorrow we will be able to meet several more individuals. But I can say, yes, we have met with leaders of the MDC, we have met with the leaders of the Rainbow Coalition which is former Vice President Joyce Mujuru’s party, and we will be meeting other senior leaders, other major parties over the next several days.

BZ: And lastly, Ambassador Carson, what is the overall objective of your mission?

Amb. Carson: The objective of the observer mission is to demonstrate our support for democracy and for free, transparent and inclusive elections. We believe that elections are a key element of democracy, and by being here we demonstrate our support for democracy and we demonstrate our support for transparent and credible and peaceful elections. We also believe that by being here, we are also supporting local election monitoring and local civil society groups and public citizens who believe in elections, and who also believe in the importance of election monitoring. And then finally we believe that our presence here can help identify shortcomings of procedures, that if implemented will improve the electoral process and also the democratic process as well. We believe these missions have an objective of pointing out practices, but also pointing out shortcomings that undermine the electoral process and undermine democracy. And by making thoughtful recommendations to election officials and government officials, that elections in countries that are committed to democracy, will be and can be improved. We are here as observers but we believe the best observation is the observation that is carried out by local organizations, but as international believers in democracy, we believe partnership with local organizations that support democracy, is in our benefit as well as theirs.