Whether they are ready or not, today Zimbabweans are going to the polls in what may be the most important election since the country’s transition to majority rule in 1980.

Not only will the election mark the final step laid out in the Global Political Agreement that created Zimbabwe’s current Government of National Unity (GNU) following post-election violence in 2008, but it will also determine the country’s relationship with the region, the West and the general international community. Yet with so much on the line, most analysts and observers still are not confident on the likely outcome.

Here are 3 possible scenarios that should be considered while watching the results come in. 

Scenario 1: A clear and credible win for President Mugabe and ZANU PF

Mugabe may be 89 years old and he may have overseen the near complete collapse of the Zimbabwean economy but his role in the liberation struggle to bring about majority rule and rhetoric against the West still resonate with many. Thanks to dollarization, the economy rebounded from the crippling hyperinflation that plagued the country for most of the last decade even though the economy has still not recovered to 1990s levels. Yet the improvement in the economy places less pressure on Mugabe than existed in 2008 and his political platform of indigenization and continuing land reform is popular with many rural voters. That, combined with disappointment with the rival MDC-T and Mugabe’s place as the only president many Zimbabweans have known, may be enough to legitimately hand ZANU PF a 50% + 1 margin to win the election without vote rigging or voter intimidation.

A credible win would reaffirm ZANU PF’s mandate and vision for the country, including Mugabe’s controversial fast-track land reform program. It would also make any outstanding reforms in critical areas such as independent media and the security sector extremely unlikely as these are areas where ZANU PF has consistently resisted bringing about changes, no matter how needed they are.

A credible win for Mugabe would also help out the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the guarantor of the Global Political Agreement, by giving them a result that may be contested but is unlikely to be challenged through violence. SADC’s credibility in overseeing and delivering a credible election is very much on the line and few observers doubt that the regional organization wants nothing less than Zimbabwe off their permanent agenda.

However, a clear win for Mugabe may complicate things for the US. Under the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (ZDERA) the US maintains targeted sanctions on key ZANU PF leaders, most of whom have significant histories in in state sponsored violence and corruption. While the US has stated it would be willing to re-examine sanctions following free, fair and transparent elections, lifting sanctions as an award for not being violent on persons known to have committed major human rights violations may not sit well for some at the State Department. Given that the sanctions are targeted against specific people, lifting them would also do little to rejuvenate the Zimbabwean economy or curb the corruption endemic among the ZANU PF elite. Thus difficult decisions for the US will still remain if a credible election returns Mugabe to power for another five years. 

Scenario 2: A clear win for MDC-T

Participation in the GNU and personal scandals has caused Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) to lose some of the aura it enjoyed in 2002 and 2008, but that does not mean it is out of the running. For a country that has had the same president for 33 years, the MDC-T still offers the best chance at a new start both at home and with the international community and Western donors. But in Zimbabwe, winning is only half the battle. The question remains whether ZANU PF hardliners in the government and military would permit an MDC-T win to result in an MDC-T administration.

Despite comments by Mugabe yesterday to the contrary, few believe that ZANU PF will voluntarily allow this to happen. Besides political ideology, there are numerous economic and legal reasons why top ZANU PF and military leaders would resist a change in power. Many have disproportionately benefited from indigenization programs and the corruption defining key sectors of the Zimbabwean economy such as land, finance and mineral mining. An MDC-T government would threaten these vast economic holdings and likely roll many of them back.

Likewise, very few have been held accountable over the years for the pervasive state sponsored violence marking Zimbabwean politics since Mugabe first came to power. Chief among these are the Matabeleland massacres in the early 1980s known as the Gukurahundi which pitted the military’s notorious North Korean trained Fifth Brigade against the Ndebele people who largely supported Mugabe’s political opposition. The total death toll is unknown though most put it around 20,000 people with many more killed in subsequent political violence and the violent farm seizures of the early 2000s. The trauma of the massacres and the violence since still haunts many who see a vote for the MDC as a vote for legal accountability. The presence of a plan for a national truth and reconciliation commission in MDC’s official election platform confirms how important the issue is to a sizable portion of their base; however it also gives those who would likely be found guilty for their participation a solid reason to resist change at any cost.

There are many ways ZANU PF could resist giving up power. Low voter turnout today will make rigging the vote easier, although it could still be possible for ZANU PF to pressure the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to alter results for a ZANU PF victory or a runoff by lowering MDC-T’s election count to below 50%. The violent targeting of MDC-T supporters to prevent them from voting in the second round could then help block MDC-T’s assent to power. If this sounds familiar it’s because this is exactly what happened in 2008 and it remains a possibility here. And just like 2008, SADC and the African Union would likely be called in to negotiate with most believing that another GNU involving both MDC-T and ZANU PF would result rather than SADC siding with a clear MDC-T win.

Scenario 3: No clear winner

There is of course the possibility that neither Mugabe nor Tsvangirai meet the 50% + 1 threshold to avoid a runoff or that the election process is deemed too illegitimate to facilitate a clear winner. On the first point, one element of this election that has received little attention is the fact that the smaller branch of the MDC – Welshman Ncube’s MDC-N – created a separate election pact than MDC-T rather than choosing to form a grand coalition of opposition parties. While MDC-N is not expected to garner much of the national vote, its presence on the ballot and strength in many traditional MDC strongholds may be disruptive enough to deny both MDC-T and ZANU PF a clear victory. If this is in fact the case, then MDC-N will have a significant amount of leverage in the resulting runoff or negotiations between ZANU PF and MDC-T.

Although Zimbabwean electoral law calls for a runoff between the top two contenders if no one wins more than 50% of the vote, there has been very little speculation over what the runoff may look like. Instead most believe that with no clear winner – whether through legitimate ballot counts or through extensive electoral flaws – a second negotiated GNU will be formed. This would likely involve SADC again, keeping Zimbabwe on the agenda and in political limbo for another five years.

Regardless of what happens with today’s vote there is no question that Zimbabwe will have some difficult decisions to make as it continues to rebuild from the last decade of instability. At 89, Mugabe’s days as president are numbered but the political landscape without him remains unclear. For now, everyone will just have to wait and see what happens next.

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