Zimbabwe elections: no matter the result, the future’s bleak (and Comrade Bob’s not going anywhere)

By Simon Allison 31 July 2013

Zimbabwean citizens, including a surprising number of centenarians and more than a few dead people, are casting their vote on Wednesday. Despite the opposition’s fighting talk – not real fighting, that’s a ZANU-PF specialty – President Robert Mugabe looks like he’s got this one in the bag, with SADC and the AU firmly in his corner. By SIMON ALLISON.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: this election is not going to be free and fair. This election is not going to be credible. This election is not going to be transparent, or acceptable, or whatever other linguistically and morally ambiguous adjective the African diplomatic community will coin to condone its results (so far, African Union Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has plumped for satisfactory, as in “the [election] preparations were satisfactory”, an insupportable conclusion which makes me question my admiration for her).

Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s long-suffering finance minister and a very senior opposition figure, wearily offered a few more accurate adjectives in an interview with Al Jazeera: “I have said it and I have said it again and I am beginning to sound like a broken record now, but these elections are illegal, illegitimate, immoral, unfree and unfair.”

Perhaps, though, you’d rather not take Biti’s word for it, given that he’s not exactly an objective source. How about the International Crisis Group? “Conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist. Confidence in the process and institutions is low. The voters’ roll is a shambles, security forces unreformed and the media grossly imbalanced. The electoral commission is under-funded and lacked time to prepare. Concerns about rigging are pervasive, strongly disputed results highly likely,” the think tank concluded in a special report.

A few examples, from many. In 63 constituencies, there are more registered voters than inhabitants – Zimbabweans, it seems, are so excited about democracy that some of them want to vote twice. The national voters roll lists 109,000 voters over the age of 100, in a country where the average life expectancy is just 51. That same voters’ roll has 900,000 duplicate entries, and has not been made officially available to the opposition.

What this means, in practice, is that there is almost no chance of an uncontested victory from either the near-nonagenarian President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF, or from Morgan Tsvangirai and his faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (there are several others – a division which doesn’t help the opposition’s cause). Whoever wins, someone is going to be unhappy, and they’ll have plenty of grounds on which to base their complaint.

In the short term at least, by far the most dangerous outcome is if Tsvangirai wins the presidential election – either outright or by just enough to force a dangerous run-off (tentatively scheduled for early September). This is likely to trigger the kind of violence that Zimbabwe witnessed last time Tsvangirai won an election, which was the first round of the 2008 poll. A brutal campaign of intimidation against opposition figures and supporters, spearheaded by state security agencies, forced Tsvangirai to withdraw his participation from the run-off. The complete lack of reform in the security sector since then (a failure for which SADC mediators must bear some responsibility), and its vested interest in maintaining the status quo, means that the threat of state-sponsored violence could once again derail the entire process.

A Mugabe victory, on the other hand, raises a different set of issues. Bear in mind that Mugabe remains an extremely popular man, and some opinion polls have indicated that he might even be popular enough to win without having to cook the results (note that these are unreliable at the best of times, and much more so in Zimbabwe). For this, the opposition have only themselves to blame – their messy divisions, coupled with Tsvangirai’s even messier love life, have knocked their support.

But the president still has plenty of incentive to fiddle the results. Even if he’s leading, Mugabe wants to avoid having to do this all over again in a run-off election which would by its nature re-unite the opposition behind a single candidate. For this, Mugabe needs more than 50% of the vote.

A lot, then, will depend on the scale of the rigging and just how blatant it is. In the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 2011 presidential vote, the South African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union have already shown that they are prepared to ignore pretty serious electoral fraud. This is a useful template for Zanu-PF to follow: as long as they don’t go overboard, and allow the SADC and AU election monitors space for the kind of plausible deniability necessary to legitimise these clearly flawed polls, then chances are Mugabe will get the regional support he needs (which will, incidentally, automatically trigger the suspension of European Union sanctions).

This, then, is the most likely outcome: Mugabe wins with just over 50% of the vote in elections which are clearly flawed, but not flawed enough to force observers into dismissing the results.

It would be an outcome that South African President Jacob Zuma will be delighted with. He’s no friend of Mugabe, but he is a fan of stability in the region – and he’ll be particularly wary of the impact another economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe will have on South Africa. “South Africa is already struggling with millions of Zimbabweans pushing service delivery to its limit … The consequences are dire should millions more pour across the border,” said Rashweat Mukundu, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, speaking to the Mail & Guardian.

Zimbabwe’s opposition won’t be quite as happy. They will feel justly aggrieved that they were forced to participate in these dubious polls for which the country is ill-prepared; and even more so that the entire process has been legitimised by the African diplomatic community who were supposed to be the guarantors of genuine political reform. And it is in the opposition’s hands that Zimbabwe’s long-term future rests, for how the it reacts to what looks certain to be another huge setback will determine the course of the country’s future – which, right now, still looks bleak. DM

Read more:

  • Fear and optimism mixed as Zimbabwe faces another Mugabe-rigged election on the Independent
  • Zimbabwe’s elections: Mugabe’s last stand from the International Crisis Group (PDF)
  • Zimbabwe elections loom amid signs of fragile recovery on the Guardian
  • Factsheet: the policies and promises of Zanu-PF and the MDC on Daily Maverick

Photo: Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe addresses a media conference at State house in Harare, on the eve of the country’s general elections, July 30, 2013. Heavily armed riot police deployed in potential election flashpoints in Zimbabwe on Tuesday on the eve of a poll showdown between Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai that remains too close to call. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo


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