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Zimbabwe: Beyond the rhetoric of free and fair elections


Showers Mawowa is Deputy Director, Southern Africa Liaison Office (SALO).

In spite of his tainted past, Zimbabwe’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is moving to prove that he is not Robert Mugabe. He has been unequivocal about economic recovery and has pledged to ensure a credible, free and fair election. While few doubt the commitment to economic recovery, there is scepticism about democratisation. The 2018 election will provide a litmus test for the new administration’s commitment to electoral democracy.

Promises by President Emmerson Mnangagwa of economic reform in Zimbabwe have been accompanied by swift action. The scrapping of the controversial indigenisation law, a three-month amnesty for return of externalised money and assets, several high-profile arrests of those accused of corruption (though so far concentrating on opponents within Zanu-PF), reappointment of the respected Auditor General Mildred Chisi, allocation of specific deliverables to ministers within a 100-day cycle, high-level visits to neighbouring countries to, among other things, meet with Zimbabwe’s diaspora business community, and announcements of million-dollar investment deals, are but a few examples. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been renamed Foreign Affairs and International Trade with the pursuit of economic interests as a key mandate.

In contrast, however, the promise of a democratic dispensation is yet to be followed up by equally enthusiastic and decisive action. This has prompted some to postulate that the new government might follow a Chinese or Rwandan model, an efficient state that delivers services and economic growth but one that is not necessarily democratic. It has also been suggested that given the comatose state of Zimbabwe’s economy and the extent of economic desperation, the bread and butter has become so central that Zimbabweans care less about civil and political rights – at least in the short to medium term.

The allusion to China and Rwanda misses contextual differences with Zimbabwe’s new dispensation. It also fails to appreciate the intricately entwined nature of Zimbabwe’s crisis encompassing the political and economic, this not only in objective terms but as reflected in the demands by civil society over the past two decades. Notably, in spite of Mnangagwa’s insistence on “letting bygones be bygones”, cries for redress of past human rights violations have got louder and impossible to ignore. In the words of Zimbabweans, what was most exciting about the November mass protest in support of the coup was not only the prospect of a new economic order, but the very act of protesting freely. In fact, some expressed scepticism, and continue to do so, about what a new order might entail but relished the freedom to speak out – even for a day.

Restoration of full state legitimacy, a priority for the new government, cannot happen without both economic and political reforms at least in the eyes of the citizenry and the international community. This, I argue, is something that Zimbabwe’s new government is fully aware of.

In my December article, I suggested that on balance, in comparison to his predecessor, Zimbabwe’s new president seems to be pursuing the politics of persuasion. In the few weeks of his leadership, he has portrayed himself as a statesman, visiting opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai who is currently battling colon cancer at his home, and promising to restore his privileges which were unceremoniously taken away by the Mugabe government. In an interview with the Financial Times, Mnangagwa, in another significant departure from the Mugabe years, has invited the UN and EU (and even the Commonwealth) to observe the upcoming elections. The Zimbabwe state media have covered ad nauseum Mnangagwa’s wife visiting hospitals, female prisoners, orphanages and feeding the homeless, among other things, undoubtedly to portray a brand totally different from former first lady Grace Mugabe.

It is therefore clear that Mnangagwa wants to write his own script, no doubt partly motivated by the quest for domestic, regional and international legitimacy. But is he prepared to go all the way, or is he seeking minimalist compliance to placate domestic, regional and international opinion? Below are some of the areas that require urgent attention if the promise of a free and fair election in Zimbabwe is to materialise. In addition, the SADC, whose role in the past has been questioned, has an opportunity to restore credibility as far as management of elections is concerned.

  • One of the most controversial elements of Zimbabwe’s 2013 elections, though largely violence-free, pertains to the accessibility of the voter’s roll. In 2013 the voter’s roll was made available to the opposition only a day before the election, making it impossible to verify and raise queries before the election. It was in hard copy, making it difficult to analyse and share. It has been alleged that upon scrutiny, the roll contained some shocking irregularities, such as over a million invalid names, and it excluded about a million voters mostly from opposition strongholds. By the Zimbabwe Election Commission’s own admission, over 300,000 voters were turned away on voting day. Zimbabwe is currently carrying out a new biometric voter registration exercise which will address some of these problems. However, given past experience, civil society calls for the roll to be made accessible to all and subject to an independent audit must be heeded.
  • The role of media, particularly state media, is crucial in levelling the playing field for contestants during an election. In its post-Zimbabwe-2013-Election assessment report, the SADC Elections Observer Mission raised concerns about the biased conduct of state media. It recommended that the Zimbabwe Election Commission should implement provisions of the new constitution of Zimbabwe dealing with media reforms as well as sections of the Electoral Act requiring free and fair coverage of all political contestants during elections. This situation has not changed. The 2017 media freedom ranking by the international media watch dog, Reporters Without Border place Zimbabwe 128th out of 180 countries. Reasons cited for the poor ranking include oppressive media legislation and harassment of journalists.

Another perennial concern of civil society and opposition is the independence of key state institutions. The 2013 constitution provides for the independence of the judiciary and the Zimbabwe Election Commission. Security forces, namely, military, intelligence and police, and traditional authorities, are required to be non-partisan. These institutions have a history of partisanship towards Zanu-PF to differing degrees. The appointment of the new head of the Zimbabwe Election Commission will be watched carefully. Traditional chiefs are often accused of frog-marching villagers to vote for Zanu-PF and barring the opposition from campaigning. During his recent meeting with chiefs, Mnangagwa’s message of tolerance and free political activity was undermined by partisan statements at the very same meeting by the leader of the council of chiefs.

Of all state institutions, the security forces are the biggest concern. The reform of police and intelligence, infamous for the torture and disappearances of Zanu-PF political opponents, will form one of the main tests for the new government. The military coup, it must be remembered, was the culmination of a history of military involvement in the political affairs of the nation and Zanu-PF as a political party. The military is not neutral, and in fact sees itself as the custodian of Zanu-PF, and stands accused of violence and intimidation against opposition supporters. The new political dispensation has if anything strengthened the hand of the military in the country’s politics as evinced by the appointment of senior generals in key party and government posts. Reports of some senior figures within Zanu-PF stating that they will work with the military in “campaigning” for the 2018 election raise serious concerns. While the period between now and the elections is too short for full reforms, it is yet to be seen whether the new political leadership will call on these institutions to be neutral.

Intricately linked to the role of key state institutions is the urgent need for the repealing of draconian legislation such as the Public Order and Security Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and aligning laws with the 2013 constitution. The Public Order and Security Act, very similar to the infamous colonial Law and Order Maintenance Act, has been used to bar opposition gatherings and protests and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act has been used to suppress free speech. Both are inconsistent with the freedoms of assembly and expression as provided for by the 2013 constitution. Zimbabwe’s main electoral act remains largely unaligned to the new constitution. Despite calls by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission, groups such as the diaspora and prisoners remain excluded from voting. Logistical impossibility has been cited as the main reason, though this has not been proven empirically. The commitment to a free and fair election, if genuine, could, at the least, be followed by actual steps to repeal the three laws cited above and align them with the constitution. This represents low hanging fruit if the new government wishes to demonstrate will to level the political playing field.

The likelihood however is that Zimbabwe will go into elections without most of the reforms envisaged by the new constitution, recommended by the past observer mission reports and the electoral road map facilitated by South Africa under the Global Political Agreement – potentially setting the stage for another contested outcome. Despite the positive rhetoric from the top, Zimbabwe’s path to democracy remains uncertain.

A thorough and impartial election observation will therefore be critical as demanded by Zimbabwe civil society. SADC’s role in particular will be important. After generously accepting the military-led change, SADC could at least insist on a free and fair election for the full restoration of legitimacy.

Yet in no other country has SADC’s role been questioned more than in Zimbabwe. There is a view that SADC allowed Mugabe to get away with electoral fraud and failed to uphold standards. It is not surprising that during the military coup, news of SADC’s planned intervention was not well received by the Zimbabwe public. Now that Mugabe is gone, will SADC act in a way that is seen to be impartial?

Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections will be observed under the revised SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. The new guideline has raised the bar somewhat in terms of the electoral management process, providing for long-term observation of the elections, a post-election review process, more oversight for the SADC Electoral Advisory Council and enforcement mechanism for non-compliant states. Long-term observation entails early deployment of observers, up to three months before the election. This is consistent with one of the key asks of the Zimbabwe civil society focused on elections.

SADC’s approach is centred mostly on pre-empting election violence by making use of early warning and mediation. However, as Zimbabwe’s 2013 election demonstrated, a violence-free election does not negate the possibility of covert forms of intimidation, structural forms of unevenness and, in fact, subtle rigging. Several surveys point to the dominance of the fear factor in Zimbabwean politics which will take a long time to undo. Early deployment and long-term observation may assist in detecting and addressing some of these below-the-surface dynamics.

While there are positive messages from Zimbabwe’s new president, the region and Zimbabwe’s civil society have a role to play in calling for actual action. Without actual reforms, much depends on political will, making for a fragile transition. The quest for legitimacy might have incentivised a more open kind of politics but the 2018 election will show the political trajectory Zimbabwe is on. DM

Dr Showers Mawowa is a Deputy Director at the Southern African Liaison Office (SALO) a Regional Policy Research and Dialogue Organisation based in South Africa and member of the International Experts Panel (IEP) at the Open Government Partnership’s (OGP) Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM). He writes in his personal capacity.


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