Africa

Zimbabwe elections: “So far, so good”

By Simon Allison 1 August 2013

Zimbabweans have voted. Although results won’t be known for a few days, it’s not too early for SIMON ALLISON to conclude that Zimbabwean citizens are much better at this democracy thing than the politicians who represent them, and to indulge in a little illegal speculation.

Come August 1, Mugabe will be history.” If there’s one thing that Morgan Tsvangirai can’t be faulted for, it’s his confidence, and the Zimbabwean opposition leader remained in a defiantly bullish mood yesterday as Zimbabweans flocked to polling stations to cast their vote in what may be the most important election in the country’s democratic history.

But this particular prediction may have been a little over-optimistic. August 1 is here, and so too is President Robert Mugabe, who’s showing no sign of going anywhere. Mugabe, as usual, is playing a long game. When asked if he intended on serving out his full five-year term, should he win, the 89-year-old (remarkably spry and wrinkle-free for his age) dismissed the question: “Why not? Why should I offer myself as a candidate when I know I won’t finish my term?”

Keen observers will note that, despite the haughty tone, this is not exactly a denial. His comment is fuelling many analysts’ predictions that this election is less about Mugabe himself than about the continued dominance of his beloved Zanu-PF party; and that should Mugabe win, he will step aside to make way for his successor. Think of it as a kind of autocratic abdication, although as yet there’s no obvious successor – the real power struggle might not be with the opposition at all, but between the various Zanu-PF princes battling to assume Mugabe’s crown.

While we are free to speculate about what the eventual winner may or may not do, we cannot give extrapolate predictions from the way things are going at polling stations. The Zimbabwean police force are doing everything in their power to stamp out guessing games, warning that they would act against “people who announce results of elections before the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission”. Under hastily-imposed regulations, it is an offence to post individual polling station results outside each polling station, and to send results via text or email. Civil society groups who intended to verify the counting process by independently tallying results from polling stations aren’t happy, seeing the sudden police move as yet another attempt to chip away at the transparency of the vote.

In the absence of these independent tallies, we won’t know anything until the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) posts the first preliminary results, which are expected sometime on Thursday morning. We probably won’t know final results until Monday, and even that looks optimistic given that the ZEC has until August 5 (next Thursday) to announce, and the fact that in the last election, it was five weeks before Mugabe was proclaimed the winner.

So here’s what we do know: despite the clear flaws in the electoral process, despite the reports of intimidation and coercion, despite the cold winter’s day that kept election monitors huddled under their blankets, Zimbabwean citizens turned out in overwhelming numbers to claim their constitutionally-guaranteed right to choose their own representatives. Polling hours were extended to midnight from 7pm to accommodate everyone. Even if their politicians don’t often get it right, Zimbabweans themselves sure know how to do democracy.

Not everyone was able to vote, however. There are plenty of reports coming in of voters being denied entry to polling stations because their name wasn’t on the voters roll, even though they were clutching their voter registration slip; or of voters being told to go to a different polling station from the one at which they were registered; or voters turning up and finding their name already crossed off the list, indicating they had already voted. This last example, interestingly, mostly affected policeman who were supposed to vote in a special early ballot, but couldn’t because the ZEC just hadn’t prepared properly for it – now they’ve been denied a second chance to vote. The police are generally assumed to be pro-Mugabe, indicating that not all the election irregularities are necessarily part of a grand conspiracy to keep him in power (it is true, however, that any and all irregularities, no matter who they favour, are grounds for either side to dispute, and potentially ignore, the results of the poll).

The ZEC dismissed these issues as mere “technical glitches” that would not affect the result of the election. They have expressed themselves happy with the way that voting was conducted, with ZEC head Rita Makauru describing the poll as “free and fair”.

Not that her assessment is the one that matters. Everyone’s watching the watchers, the hundreds of election monitors brought in by the African Union and the Southern African Development Community to provide a (theoretically) objective view of the credibility of the election – it is their conclusions, if positive, that will legitimize the results regardless of the severity of the irregularities. Olusegun Obasanjo, the former Nigerian President who is leading the AU team, hasn’t wasted any time in extending his benediction.

Even as the statesman noted that reports of irregularities “will be investigated, but have not yet been substantiated”, Olusegun concluded: “The conduct of the election… has been peaceful, orderly, free and fair.” There you have it: Zimbabwe, the model African democracy.

Despite all this, Tsvangirai – the only opposition figure with a serious shot at toppling Mugabe, although there are three others in the race – is still confident. “It is time to complete the change we always fought for,” he said as he cast his vote in one of Harare’s better suburbs. “After all the conflicts, the stalemates, the suspicion, the hostility, I think there is a sense of calmness that Zimbabwe will be able to move forward again.”

Mugabe was even more direct in his assessment of the day: “So far, so good” was all he had to say. DM

Photo: A woman carrying a child casts her vote at a polling station in Domboshava, about 45 km (28 miles) north of Harare July 31, 2013. Zimbabweans voted in large numbers on Wednesday in a fiercely contested election pitting veteran President Robert Mugabe against Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, who has vowed to push Africa’s oldest leader into retirement after 33 years in power. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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