What should we expect from the Zimbabwean elections?
A coup in November, now elections in July. After years of waiting for post-Mugabe politics in Zimbabwe, the new dispensation is in full campaigning mode, amidst international re-engagement and promises of a bright future ahead — provided those elections are free, fair and credible. But how likely is that, really?
So, now we know. The harmonised Zimbabwean presidential and parliamentary elections will take place on July 30. These elections are a big deal, the first in Zimbabwe’s history where Robert Mugabe will not be seeking a mandate to lead. You’ll remember, of course, that retirement wasn’t entirely of Mugabe’s own free will — let’s just say he had some encouragement from the Zimbabwean military.
The prime beneficiary of the coup d’etat was Mugabe’s successor as president, his long-time right-hand man Emmerson Mnangagwa. For Mnangagwa, the elections on July 30 are his big moment to secure a personal mandate and the legitimacy of holding office because of a popular vote rather than a military operation.
A successful election would also help President Mnangagwa to build on his very effective early efforts to re-brand Zimbabwe in the eyes of the (especially Western) world. With his ubiquitous scarf, coordinated media appearances and legion of social media amplifiers, President Mnangagwa has crafted a narrative of a ‘new dispensation’ in Zimbabwe, one to which formerly estranged governments, such as the UK, can return with an open-armed embrace.
Everyone knows that, however much this diplomatic reset is desired on both sides, a reprise of the violence of 2008 would sink Mnangagwa’s efforts to secure improved international relations and the anticipated economic benefits that would follow. This has caused some to ask incredulously: surely, the military didn’t execute a coup d’etat in November, pick a new president, and deploy its leaders direct into senior government and party roles, only to put this all at risk in a free and fair election? The prize is great, but is it great enough to seriously risk losing?
In truth, this is almost certainly less of a dilemma than it first appears. As a recent book about election-rigging argues persuasively, there are in fact a lot more than fifty shades of grey between, on the one hand, free and fair elections, and, on the other, total dictatorship. Certainly, in Zimbabwe ZANU-PF is no stranger to the thesis that governments can use the benefits of incumbency to rig elections. It doesn’t need to learn twice the lesson of 2008, namely to leave as little as possible to chance.
And the benefits of incumbency are considerable: using state resources to buy the loyalty of influential figures; choosing the leadership and operating environment of the electoral commission; deploying the military to ‘remind’ people of how they should vote and the consequences of voting ‘incorrectly’; and failing properly to open up state media to provide truly balanced coverage of all political perspectives. These are all tools that can be used by incumbents to increase their odds of victory by reducing the freedom, fairness and credibility of the elections, crucially without overstepping the (relatively blurred) international ‘red lines’ of large scale electoral violence and intimidation.
In this light, the greater openness of President Mnangagwa’s Zimbabwe to international election observation is to be welcomed, but not without the caveat that the major lines of any competent election-rigging strategy will likely already be well-entrenched, not easily uncovered by observer missions, taking place behind the scenes, out of sight. Efforts to expose such activities need to start years before an election; they require a significant investment in scrutiny. The question is not just ‘will ZANU-PF use some or all these tactics?’, but also ‘will anyone be able to uncover (and then be prepared to call out) such activities if they do?’
This isn’t a new observation. Similar fears surrounded the ZANU-PF victory in 2013. But the noises coming out of various foreign capitals appear to imply that, absent a certain level of violence, the new dispensation’s diplomatic love-affairs will continue, and indeed will intensify, bearing tangible fruit for the Zimbabwean economy.
The outgoing UK Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Catriona Laing, has unfairly become something of a lightning rod for criticism of this shift in international engagement under President Mnangagwa. In truth, it was apparent well before her arrival in Zimbabwe, at least since 2013, that there was waning international (and especially European) enthusiasm for the old policy of ‘no engagement’ and targeted measures on the regime’s top leaders. The ‘sanctions’ had long since been pared back until their only targets were the former first family of Robert and Grace Mugabe. (Ironically, the Mugabes are still the only individual subjects of active, non-suspended EU sanctions, even in their gilded if enforced retirement.)
The sanctions era teaches us the limits of a divided international community’s ability to bring meaningful political change to a state like Zimbabwe, at least absent shared political intent in the region.
All this might seem to be a mood-killer for the Zimbabwean opposition, especially with its own well-publicised elite infighting following the untimely death of veteran opposition leader and former inclusive government prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai. In public, at least, MDC Alliance presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa continues to talk confidently about his prospects of winning a free and fair election, and he can draw large crowds when he speaks.
But bitter experience must suggest to Chamisa and his team that the prospects for such an election are slim to none. Whatever his chances on a level playing-field might be in theory, Chamisa’s chances are likely to be undermined effectively by his adversary, a vigorous incumbent who is no stranger to using every tool to his advantage.
Why, then, is Mr Chamisa bothering to contest the elections at all? Why not instead try to wrestle control of the political narrative away from the ‘new dispensation’ in perhaps the only way possible, by boycotting the elections if his key reform conditions are not met, expressing no confidence in the possibility of a free, fair and credible election under President Mnangagwa?
No-one can forecast the precise impact of such a decision. And with political violence by no means a distant memory, such a move would carry severe risks. At best, ZANU-PF might perceive it as nothing more than the latest MDC own goal or unforced error, ceding the election to President Mnangagwa without a fight. At worst, ‘punishment’ could ensue.
Moreover, and arguably more consequential from a strategic perspective, although a boycott would be a coherent expression of political principle, its practical impact on the MDC Alliance — in terms of constituencies and councils surrendered to ZANU-PF and other opposition parties — could be devastating, potentially eliminating it from Zimbabwe’s political future altogether.
Frankly, that’s not an attractive proposition. Continued participation in a flawed process thus becomes the least worst option, albeit lending credibility to the re-legitimisation of President Mnangagwa with the appearance of victory in a contested election.
As it stands, there appears to be widespread support, in Zimbabwe and overseas, for sustained, incremental political progress. The elation of Mugabe’s ouster gave way quickly to pragmatic calculations about what can realistically be expected from a Mnangagwa government (and the possible near-future succession of Deputy President Constantino Chiwenga). This pragmatism might yet lead regional and other states to sign off on imperfect but relatively peaceful elections in July, in which case the fortunes of the opposition could be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.
Choosing to play by these rules, Chamisa and others would arguably be accepting an arrangement in which they were more or less guaranteed to lose the election (or, at least, to lose it by a larger margin than they otherwise would have), so that their country could benefit from whatever stability can truly come from allowing an incumbent government to refuse to compromise with its electorate.
Like 2008, but less violent; flawed but peaceful. Hardly the most edifying basis for a major international policy shift. And, looking further north to the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is no reason to think that a problem deferred is any more likely to be solved once the can has been kicked further down the line. In the longer term, affording legitimacy to a political dispensation (new or old) in the wake of flawed elections is by no means a risk-free policy. But that looks increasingly like where we are now with Zimbabwe.