afrol News / SARDC, 8 March - As the Zimbabwe presidential poll reaches decision point this weekend, the 5.6 million registered voters will make clear which way they want to be economically empowered - with more land or more jobs.
The main contenders, President Robert Mugabe of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) have respectively promised their supporters land and jobs.
It is with little doubt that the participation of the other three candidates - two independents Wilson Kumbula and Paul Siwela, and Dr. Shakespeare Maya of the National Alliance for Good Governance - is more to do with the desire to validate Zimbabwe's political plurality than any hope of winning the actual presidency.
The ruling party which in recent years has embarked on a radical land reform programme says in its election message that land is at the core of the economy. "Land is the economy, and the economy is land."
The ZANU PF leader says the only way to economically empower the people of Zimbabwe, who are currently facing worsening poverty, as well as food shortages, as a result of international isolation is to give them land.
Mugabe, the man who brought independence to Zimbabwe in 1980 ending nearly a century of British settler occupation, has been heavily criticized by his own people for moving too slowly with land redistribution, and by the international community for what they call unlawful repossession of land from white commercial farmers.
But he draws enormous support from the black peasants, who for many years have been crammed on infertile communal lands to which they were forcibly moved by white settlers. In the first two decades of independence, the ZANU-PF government managed to resettle only 70,000 families. However, its recent fast-track resettlement programme has benefited 300,000 families, despite lack of donor finance.
Nonetheless, the MDC says without infrastructure and other amenities in the resettlement areas, this programme will go down in history as sheer electioneering.
Although ZANU-PF's land redistribution programme has put the country at odds with Britain and other western countries, it has ushered in a new era of land reform programmes widely acceptable not only in Zimbabwe, but in the entire SADC region.
As a result of events in Zimbabwe, land and agrarian reform is now a core programme of SADC which has already formed several committees at different levels including a Botswana-based Organ for Land Issues.
But the MDC, which says is not opposed to land reform, blasts ZANU-PF for what it calls a chaotic resettlement programme and blames the current food shortages on disruption of farming activities by invading peasants and others.
Despite the regional endorsement of Zimbabwe's land reform programme, the U.S., Britain and other European countries have reacted by freezing aid to Zimbabwe, citing among others a breakdown in the rule of law and human rights violations. They say the government has not done enough to quell violence on the occupied farms and during campaign for the parliamentary elections in 2000 and now this year's presidential election.
But Mugabe has argued that for anybody to expect his government to arrest farm occupiers who are lawfully demonstrating against social injustice would be selective application of democratic principles.
The withdrawal of aid by Zimbabwe's main donors over the last couple of years has created a serious foreign currency shortage which has sparked a plethora of other economic problems and challenges including a rapid economic downturn which, of course, led to the birth of the main challenger to ZANU-PF today, the MDC.
MDC was formed in 1999 following protests of a skyrocketing cost of living when the Zimbabwe dollar collapsed against major currencies. The founders of MDC, which draws the bulk of its supporters from the working class whose incomes and employment opportunities have been steadily eroded by escalating inflation and lack of investment, blamed the economic problems on ZANU PF and its policies.
Tsvangirai, then secretary-general of the powerful Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) that led nationwide stayaways in the late 90s, became the president of the new party. MDC says if elected into office it will set as its main priority healing the damaged economy and creating more jobs. It enjoys support from the urban electorate.
The former trade unionist says he will bring back Zimbabwe's donors chased away by what he calls Mugabe's self-destructive radicalism. His support by British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been interpreted by ZANU-PF to be an attempt to recolonize Zimbabwe and is one of the reasons pre-poll emotions have risen so high.
A defiant Mugabe has accused Blair and some other European countries of bias, and reacted by refusing to invite observers from the countries in question. When the Zimbabwean government refused to accredit Swedish Pierre Schori who was to be the head of the EU observer mission, the latter responded by recalling all its observers leaving the onus to missions that are now largely African.
Many observers say leaving it to Africans to judge one of its own is the appropriate thing to do since they understand the culture and practices better than anybody from overseas. And for SADC countries, the post election stability, or lack of it, would have a direct bearing on their economies, and thus would never want to see anything go wrong.
For the voters, their majority decision will determine whether Zimbabwe's economic recovery would be led by more black land ownership or more job from a foreign aid-backed economy.