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After the Bell: Were the Zimbabwean elections free and fair? Please, spare me

After the Bell: Were the Zimbabwean elections free and fair? Please, spare me
Zimbabwean citizens wait in a queue at a polling station before voting commences in Mabvuku suburb on 23 August 2023 in Harare, Zimbabwe. (Photo: Tafadzwa Ufumeli / Getty Images)

If you look at Zimbabwe’s elections historically, you can’t help but notice some absolutely extraordinary things.

The official results of the Zimbabwean elections held last week are that Zanu-PF won, yet again. According to the official results, Zanu-PF presidential candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa got 2.46 million votes, or 51% of the votes cast, compared with the Citizens Coalition for Change candidate Nelson Chamisa’s 2.15 million votes, or 45% of the votes cast. The party votes were of a similar order.

What this means, or what we are being asked to believe, is that one of Africa’s least successful political parties, which managed to take GDP per capita in real terms from $1,600 at independence in 1980 to $1,300 today, 50 years later, after several bouts of hyperinflation, has been endorsed, yet again, by the majority of its citizens. Either Zimbabweans are the most economically benighted people in the world (which I don’t believe for a moment), or there is something funny going on here.

Compare this trajectory with Botswana next door; also landlocked, also the product of British colonialism, also dominated by a single party, also mineral export-dependent. Botswana’s GDP per capita in real terms has gone from around $2,000 in 1980, according to economics website Trading Economics, to $7,000 over the same period. SA’s, just by the way, was about $4,500 in 1994 when the ANC took over, and it’s now around $6,000.

According to the Zimbabwean observer missions, the elections were far from free and fair. Even the SADC Electoral Observation Mission, which is normally very cautious about making forthright judgements, said the poll was “well below expected standards”.

The mission talked about the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission’s failure to distribute ballots on time, resulting in delayed polls in some parts of the country; the banning of foreign journalists (including one from Daily Maverick); and a shadowy group called Forever Associates Zimbabwe linked to Zanu-PF, which set up “survey desks” outside polling stations in an intimidatory manner towards voters.

But overall, these doubts were expressed as less than categorical. So, what about applying some maths to the problem? I did a quick comparison of three southern African countries to see if we can spot any trends.

If you look at Zimbabwe’s elections historically, you can’t help but notice some absolutely extraordinary things. We can’t tell what happens in the voting booths, but one thing we do know is how many votes were cast, because, you know, they have to count the votes.

The first noticeable thing about Zimbabwe is that the proportion of people who are registered voters is very small compared with the population. Supposedly, there are 15.9 million Zimbabwean citizens (I’m not sure how we know that, but that’s what Google says). That means 35% of the total population is registered. Compare that with SA, where about 40% are registered, and Namibia, with about 53% registered.

The numbers seem low in SA and Namibia’s case, but both are young countries and have large populations below voting age. Zimbabwe has the same youthful character but even so, the proportion of voters registered is suspiciously low.

The second thing to notice is that in Zimbabwe’s case, when you compare the past three elections, the number of registered voters is declining. That is just bizarre. How can that possibly be happening? In a young country, it should be increasing as more of the youth reach voting age. And that is what is happening in SA and Namibia. SA adds about a million voters per election.

Amazingly, even though the number of registered voters is declining, the number of votes cast is increasing in Zimbabwe. One might — generously — presume that is because the elections are more tightly contested following the death of Robert Mugabe. But it means that the percentage of votes cast as a proportion of registered voters has exploded — it’s now sitting at 85%.

So, in this past election, we are supposed to believe that 85% of registered Zimbabwean voters cast their votes. By comparison, in both SA and Namibia, the number of votes cast as a percentage of registered voters is about 70% and that, by international standards, is extremely high.

You do get some very high and very low turnouts around the world. Brazil has just had one of the most fiercely contested elections in its history in which 79% of registered voters voted. The UK’s most recent election, also hotly contested, drew about 67% of registered voters. But an 85% turnout is extremely rare, especially in the country where a huge swathe of voters live in the country a little to the south.

Based on these figures, I think I have a pretty good idea of what has been happening here. The Zanu-PF supporters, whom I presume make up most of the electoral authority, are engaging in that old trick of the incumbent government: they are not updating the voters’ roll unless the voters can be relied on to vote the right way. Unfortunately, some voters are dying, so that reduces the total voters’ roll. And that would, of course, inflate the proportion of votes cast, which is exactly what we are seeing.

By controlling the ballot in this way, Zanu-PF can effectively steal the election — but subtly. Doing so is never going to be entirely invisible, (except in the past to some of SA’s “election monitors”). But the point is that it can be stolen in a way that offers a sufficient amount of doubt which will allow the party to make the claim, dubious as it may be, that it and the president were democratically elected.

Sometimes I just wish they would drop the pose and dispense with this election gig entirely. But perhaps in the distant future we might see an actual election — one lives in hope. So, on balance, it’s probably worth keeping up the pretence in the meantime.

But just so long as everybody is clear: this was not a poll “below expected standards”. It was an obviously fraudulent poll. IMHO. DM

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