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electoral cleansing

noun [uncountable]

the use of force to intimidate or remove people who are likely to vote in opposition to a particular political regime

'There is a systematic attempt under way to change the political landscape. The aim is electoral cleansing – to drive opposition supporters from their voting areas, or make them too afraid to vote for the MDC again.'

BBC News 6th May 2008

'Haiti is in the midst of a comprehensive program of electoral cleansing … Its ballots are being cleansed of political dissidents, its voting rolls cleansed of the urban and rural poor. The streets are being cleansed of anti-government political activity.

ZNet 17th October 2005

The ongoing controversy surrounding the presidential election in Zimbabwe has thrown the term electoral cleansing into the media spotlight.

On 2nd April 2008, the Zimbabwe election commission confirmed that President Robert Mugabe and his party, known as ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front), had lost control of parliament. Immediately afterwards there was a major crackdown on opposition parties by Zimbabwean government forces, and many journalists who had been reporting on the disputed election were arrested.

the term electoral cleansing is not confined to … Zimbabwe. Recent citations show it being used in other contexts relating to the violation of human rights, such as political corruption in Haiti

On 2nd May 2008, official results published by the Zimbabwe election commission claimed that no candidate had secured the final win in the first round, and therefore a presidential run-off would be needed. This met with a major outcry from the main opposition party MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) who claimed that they had won an outright victory in the first round with 50.3% of the votes.

Ahead of the run-off presidential vote, the MDC are now charging the Mugabe regime with conducting a campaign of violent intimidation against opposition supporters, including an assassination plot against MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Potential supporters of MDC are being driven out of their voting areas or made too afraid to vote in opposition to Mugabe, a phenomenon described as electoral cleansing.

Background – electoral cleansing

The term electoral cleansing is not confined to the situation in Zimbabwe. Recent citations show it being used in other contexts relating to the violation of human rights, such as political corruption in Haiti.

The expression electoral cleansing first appeared in 1996, when it was used in connection with the Bosnian elections following the civil war in former Yugoslavia. Authorities in Bosnia and Serbia were coercing Serb refugees to register to vote in the Serb-controlled half of the country, to ensure a powerful Serb presence there. On election day, the authorities transported tens of thousands to strategically chosen polling stations, including those in towns with a pre-war Muslim or Croat majority.

Electoral cleansing comes from the earlier term ethnic cleansing, which also emanated from the civil war in former Yugoslavia. Based on a loan translation of the Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian phrase etnicko cišcenje, ethnic cleansing first entered the English lexicon in the early nineties, and is defined in the Macmillan Dictionary as 'the use of violence to force people from a particular ethnic group to leave an area'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 28th May 2008.

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