The false promise of elections in Zim

The outcome of Zimbabwe's elections has been met with mixed emotions. Ranging from celebration and jubilation for the presumptive victors, Zanu-PF, to outright disbelief and disgust among the leadership and supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who had invested much time and energy in an attempt to secure a radical change in the status quo, which has severely undermined Zimbabwe's political stability and crippled its economy.

People waited nervously for the election results, and a great sense of foreboding and trepidation was felt by the international community, which had repeatedly been presented with Zimbabwe elections marred by allegations of voter fraud, intimidation and violence.

After the 2008 election run-off, in which President Robert Mugabe stood as the sole candidate following Morgan Tsvangirai's last-minute decision to withdraw after continuing acts of violence, a sense of hope was vested in the government of national unity that emerged as part of the Global Political Agreement.

There was hope that power-sharing would be the much-needed panacea that could address the multiple political and economic woes that had plagued Zimbabwe for a considerable period of time. Mugabe and Tsvangirai's attempts at joint governance of Zimbabwe, however, did not yield the much-needed unification of the country, despite some initial signs of progress.

With yet another electoral contest in Zimbabwe concluded, and commendably without reports of widespread violence and terror as in previous polls, important questions linger and invaluable new insights are likely to emerge. The obvious question that has reverberated across the region and continent is: What implication does Zanu-PF's electoral victory hold for the future of the country, and indeed, the region?

A less obvious but potentially useful insight that could likely emerge from Zimbabwe's awkward engagement in electoral politics – and one that could hold true for elections in Africa generally – is that perhaps too much hope has been invested in the ability of electoral democracy to serve as the cure-all for the woes that plague many African states.

Indeed, electoral contestation, specifically its more odious features and characteristics, appears to be at the root of the current malaise.

On one level, it would seem that electoral politics has all but ripped the Zimbabwean nation apart – perhaps even irreparably so – instead of promoting a sense of national unity and common purpose that is desperately needed now.

Not surprisingly, as in many other African elections, the outcome has been hotly disputed by the vanquished in what they believe to be a gross injustice of electoral fraud perpetrated by the victor.

Mugabe and Zanu-PF secured what appears tantamount to a landslide victory, one that will, however, likely be viewed among sceptics as being devoid of legitimacy. This is unlikely to affect the elderly statesman, apart from the whispers in party corridors as who his likely successor will be when he finally departs from the political arena. All eyes will now obviously be fixed upon Mugabe's every move in the next few weeks, months or perhaps even years.

What is likely to be far more interesting and insightful in the post-election drama is MDC leader Tsvangirai's next move. Tsvangirai had decried the election as being severely compromised, a huge farce and "null and void". Yet the outcome has ended his difficult, and some would argue ineffectual, premiership of the country.

Tsvangirai's political future now appears uncertain amid divisions in his ranks that have undermined the MDC's ability to represent a genuine and strong opposition voice in Zimbabwean politics. The uneasy power-sharing agreement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai – a political union that was doomed from the very outset – now appears to be over for good.

The agreement did not secure genuine democratic reform nor the economic revival that the country was desperately seeking during arguably one of the most difficult periods in its post-independence history.

The failure of this power-sharing formula will also make it increasingly difficult for the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the African Union (AU) and other regional bodies to sell this solution to other African states facing similar post-election quagmires, despite some initial victories and progress achieved in Kenya and also in Zimbabwe's case.

Of even greater interest and importance will be the new dynamic that will characterise the relationship between Mugabe and Tsvangirai, one that will be closely watched and scrutinised in the next few weeks.

Another important issue that will require deeper reflection in the wake of the controversial outcome of Zimbabwe's election is the credibility of SADC and the AU electoral observer missions that were deployed during the poll. If any major irregularities are successfully identified, SADC and the AU's credibility could come under severe scrutiny for having blessed what is being viewed by the opposition and some independent observer groups as a sham election, characterised by alleged manipulation of the voters' roll, the disenfranchisement of nearly a million urban voters and one that does not reflect the will of the people.

Although a peaceful and free poll may well have been observed, its credibility and fairness remain in dispute. All eyes will be firmly fixed upon the AU, especially the considerable pressure the continental body has placed upon countries to ratify the African Charter on Democracy,  Elections and Governance, which was adopted by African heads of state in January 2007 and enforced in February 2012. At present, only 15 African countries are parties to the charter and Zimbabwe is not one of them.

A final insight is that Zimbabwe's elections have laid the foundation for considerable uncertainty about the direction the country is likely to take after the events of the past week.

Zanu-PF hardliners have likely been emboldened by these dramatic results and will re-establish their ironclad grip on power. What is patently obvious is that the past five years have not yielded any dramatic and overall positive changes for Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwean economy still faces major challenges, unemployment remains high and the country's agricultural sector is yet to produce enough to feed the country. Even more worrisome is the considerable uncertainty that now hovers over the future of opposition politics in Zimbabwe.

Will disillusioned MDC supporters weather the storm by staying the course and continuing their fight to effect democratic change? Or will the ballot continue to triumph over the bullet in a system that has repeatedly frustrated the opposition's attempts to secure their right to govern? Perhaps the only certainty now is that the false promise of elections as a panacea for all of Africa's ills and woes has been laid bare.

Gerrie Swart is from the department of political science at Stellenbosch University

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