Zimbabwe's elections explained

Zimbabwe voters register for the upcoming election. (AFP)

Zimbabwe voters register for the upcoming election. (AFP)

On Wednesday, Zimbabwe will hold national elections to elect a new government. President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai will face off in the contest for the third consecutive time after encounters in the 2002 and 2008 elections. But as things stand, there are other stakeholders who will be watching the outcome of the election contest from the periphery. Voters, Zimbabweans living in the diaspora, South Africans, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the rest of the world will have their eyes on Zimbabwe to see whether Mugabe will succeed in his bid for another five year-term office, his seventh consecutive term since independence in 1980.

Why should South Africans care?
South Africa has not only been the chief broker and negotiator in Zimbabwe's political crisis in the last four years, but will bear the greatest brunt should things go wrong in the Zimbabwe election. South Africa's former president Thabo Mbeki brokered the uneasy power-sharing agreement in September 2008 that brought Mugabe and Tsvangirai to the negotiating table after a bloody election run-off contest in the June 2008 election.

Appointed by the SADC in 2009, President Jacob Zuma took over the mediation efforts into the long drawn-out political crisis in Zimbabwe. An undisputed election outcome will go a long way into stabilising the political tensions in Zimbabwe, and Zuma knows that very well. Any instability is likely to set-off an exodus of political refugees into South Africa. With an estimated two million Zimbabweans living in South Africa, according to the International Organisation for Migration, South Africa's state funds will foot the bill in the event of yet another flood of Zimbabweans into the country.

Rashweat Mukundu, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute said: "Zimbabwe is not only South Africa's leading trade partner in the region, but a potential destabilising factor. South Africa is already struggling with millions of Zimbabweans pushing service delivery to its limit. South Africa therefore has a leadership role to ensure peace and a fair poll in Zimbabwe, more so a peaceful transition should it come to that. The consequences are dire should millions more pour across the border." Economic trade between Zimbabwe and South Africa is estimated to have reached R22-billion in 2012 mainly in favour of South Africa.

Would Mugabe accept defeat?
It is unlikely that Mugabe will accept defeat. He has already in his election campaign trail said this was "the fight of our lives", marshalling his Zanu-PF supporters to fight and not allow a repeat of the shock defeat of 2008. Mugabe lost the first round of voting to Tsvangirai, leading into a run-off contest. Concerns over his legacy and making an ungracious exit off Zimbabwe's political stage would be the ultimate death knell over his 33-year rule over Zimbabwe, in which he has championed himself to be the liberator from imperialism and the West. The military and other paramilitary institutions are also likely to prop up Mugabe in the event he loses the election. The military's top brass is on record for declaring that it would never accept a winner who did not have liberation war credentials – taking a punch at Tsvangirai.

Is there a possibility of an outbreak of violence?
To date, both Zanu-PF and the MDC have urged their supporters to desist from violence. So far, the call has been heeded, but with each day that disagreements over the preparations for Zimbabwe's elections continue to unfold, a volatile situation is unfolding and political tensions are on the rise. An election special report released by the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition on Monday entitled; "Can a flower grow out of the concrete?" notes that political parties had made efforts to restrain political violence as they were desperate for an SADC-endorsed election outcome should they win. "SADC has been clear about its distaste for political violence and intimidation and this will be one of the clear templates through which this election will be judged," reads a part of the report.

What will become of Tsvangirai if he loses?
Tsvangirai will still be able to lead his MDC party and work on making it a formidable opposition party. Four years in, the unity government is widely held in political circles to have exposed the MDC's deficiencies in running a government. Mukundu said this was probably the last run by Tsvangirai and Zimbabwe needed to salute him for a decade-long struggle with Mugabe, one of the most entrenched, eloquent, intelligent and evasive dictators in Africa. "A victory is a bonus for Tsvangirai but he has played his historical role and if he retires after this election it is neither a loss nor humiliation ... He should go with his head high because apart from Joshua Nkomo and Edgar Tekere, no other leader took Mugabe head-on as Tsvangirai has done and no leader shook Zanu-PF to its roots as MT has done," said Mukundu.

Is there any doubt about the elections being free and fair?
The incompletion of key political reforms as demanded by the SADC have made the Wednesday election likely to be contested. The voters' roll remains tightly controlled by Zanu-PF and other political parties still do not have access to it. "The provision of a voters' roll goes to the very heart of a free and fair election and its non-supply undermines the credibility of this election. It also raises very serious questions about what the registrar general's office is up to regarding the roll," said David Coltart, the education minister and secretary for legal affairs in the smaller faction of the MDC. "This matter is brought to the attention of the African Union and SADC observer teams and we look forward to receiving their comments regarding this very serious breach of the law and the electoral process."

Can Zimbabwe's economy survive another flawed election?
It appears strongly that the business sector wants an undisputed outcome, regardless of who wins the election. Having a clear-cut winner is expected to provide an outline of the economic policies of whatever party wins the elections. Under the unity government, business suffered from the policy contradictions that came out of the Zanu-PF and MDC sides of government forcing the business sector to adopt a wait and see approach.

Khanyile Mlotshwa, a Zimbabwe-born political commentator based at Rhodes University, said that no matter what the results of the election were, Zimbabwe would be accepted back into the international community and the West would start doing business with the country. "The Zimbabwean economy has been through a lot and this election will not have any negative impact, whether free and fair or not," said Mlotshwa.

"If anything, this election will just be an event that would allow the West to have an excuse of trooping back to Harare for business."

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu has been a correspondent for the Mail & Guardian in Zimbabwe since 2009. His areas of interest include politics and business. With a BSc honours degree in journalism and media studies, Ray aspires to become a media mogul.   Read more from Ray Ndlovu

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