On July 31 Zimbabweans went to the polls in the highly anticipated national elections that marked the end of the Government of National Unity established in 2009. In the end, President Robert Mugabe won with 61% of the vote over MDC-T’s Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe’s ZANU PF party also took two-thirds supermajority in parliament, the most they have held since the MDC first contested elections in 2000.
Now, in what is becoming a Zimbabwe electoral tradition, the aftermath of the election and its credibility is being fiercely debated between key stakeholders while members of the international community line up to take sides in the debate.
Problems with the election were evident even before July 31 came but many still hoped that a credible election could be possible with the help of the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Of course that leaves open the question of what exactly “credible” means. Analysts and civil society leaders voiced their fears in the run up to the election that the AU and SADC would sign off on any election that remained largely non-violent regardless of whether it met the requirements of a fair, free and transparent process. As of right now, it appears that is exactly what is happening. Though largely peaceful, the numerous discrepancies seriously undermine the credibility of ZANU PF’s astounding win. Some of these issues include:
- Voter Roll – As suspected beforehand, the voter registration roll was in shambles. Despite Zimbabwean electoral law and a court order, the voter roll wasn’t made available to the MDC until the day before the election and wasn’t released to some members of the public until an hour before the polls closed. Once allowed to inspect it, civil society observers claim that there massive issues remain such as over 100,000 people over the age of 100 listed in a country with an average life expectancy of 50. Likely ZANU PF voters also allegedly had an easier time registering to vote than likely MDC voters, leading to only 61% of urban voters appearing on the voter roll while nearly 100% of rural voters were registered. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission admits that more than 300,000 people were turned away, particularly in urban MDC strongholds, while independent civil society observers maintain that the real number of those disenfranchised may be as high as 1,000,000.
-Registration Slips – To deal with possible problems with the voter roll, people were allowed to vote by presenting their voter registration slips even if their name did not appear on the roll. However many people were still turned away as their registration slips were filled out wrong by the staff who registered them. Again, youth and urban voters appear to be most affected by these inconsistencies. Meanwhile, allegations abound that others were allowed to vote multiple times or in different constituencies using fraudulent registration slips, something made easier by the ability of the “indelible” ink to be washed off and the abandonment of ultraviolet scanning to ensure no one votes twice.
-High voter numbers – In such an anticipated election it is not surprising that there was high voter turnout. But one red flag with the numbers is the fact that more people voted in the harmonized election than in the constitutional referendum held in March despite the fact that voters only needed to provide ID to vote in the referendum while the harmonized elections required the stricter criteria of voter registration. Another element of surprise in the total ballot tally for the presidential vote. Rather than lose support, MDC’s Tsvangirai received roughly the same amount of votes as in 2008 while Mugabe gained more than a million more than he received in the previous election.
-Demographic Manipulation – The stacking of the voter roll in some constituencies was apparent earlier in the year as ZANU PF voters from rural areas were brought in to illegally register in urban districts where the MDC traditionally dominates. Videos taken on election day seem to confirm this and may explain why the MDC did so badly in their own backyard.
-Voter assistance – Zimbabwe boasts the highest literacy rates in Africa at more than 90%. Yet very high levels of voter assistance were recorded in at many polling stations, again largely in urban districts. Some observers reported that voters at some stations were only allowed to vote if they accepted assistance, where they were to tell the person helping them how they wanted to vote but would not actually fill out the ballot themselves. Observers and participants also noted that many of those “assisting” voters were known ZANU PF agents or wore party regalia leading to suspicions of voter intimidation.
-Incredulous results – One of the most shocking aspects of the election results is not that Mugabe and ZANU PF won but rather how resounding their victory was. Not only did ZANU PF capture a supermajority in parliament but they won in districts that are historically hostile to them. Chief among these are the total sweep of the seats in Matabeleland South and a majority of the seats in Matabeleland North. These two provinces consistently voted against ZANU PF since independence, even more so since Mugabe launched a campaign that killed tens of thousands of people in these two provinces as a means of wiping out political opposition in the 1980s. This along with the loss of other MDC strongholds in urban areas shocked many observers, even those who expected rigging to occur.
While many of these issues were apparent on election day that did not stop the AU from declaring the election to be fair and free the moment the polls closed. The AU’s preliminary report even details many of these “shortcomings” but still concludes the election to be credible, largely based on its peaceful conduct.
Within the much larger SADC delegation the assessment is much more muddled. Like the AU, SADC noted these discrepancies but officially endorsed the election, with South African president Jacob Zuma congratulating Mugabe on winning a successful vote. But there is much more notable dissent with this conclusion among different parties of the delegation. The Botswana government is officially calling for an audit of the election, noting that while the election peaceful, the process and its results did not meet the standards of credibility laid out in the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. Botswana’s “free and peaceful” but not necessarily “free and fair” rhetoric is now being mirrored by South Africa and Tanzania’s Foreign Ministers while South Africa’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, is backing Botswana’s proposal for an independent audit with new elections to be held if significant irregularities are confirmed.
Outside of Africa states are also lining up on opposite sides of the credibility debate. With the possible lifting of sanctions at stake, the US State Department watched the election closely and released a statement on August 3 commending the peaceful nature of the election but noting the US did not believe the results “represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people.” The official UK statement took a gentler tone but still questioned the credibility of the election based on irregularities observed throughout the country while Australia is calling for a re-run and noted that the last of targeted sanctions on Zimbabwe will not be lifted until free and fair elections are held.
On the opposite side of the debate China, Russia and Venezuela have all congratulated Mugabe on winning his seventh term as president with China noting it was done in a “peaceful, orderly and credible fashion.”
At a conference held last month in Washington, DC on Zimbabwe after the elections, panelists from civil society warned that regardless of the election tally the fallout from the election and the ultimate result would likely take weeks and possibly months to be determined. With Mugabe’s inauguration postponed as MDC-T challenges the results in court and key stakeholders in the region debate what should happen next, it appears that this warning is coming true.