On July 30, Zimbabweans will elect a new president for the first time without Robert Mugabe’s name appearing on the ballot.
Most poll watchers expect the vote, at least on a surface level, to be peaceful and orderly. Given the woefully low bar set by Zimbabwe’s political leadership — which has presided over nearly four decades of violent and brazenly manipulated polls — this could even be the least-worst election in a generation.
It is now less than a week until the polls open. However, the actions taken by the new government of Emmerson Mnangagwa have already made a free, fair, and credible election impossible. Just last week, for example, the country’s electoral commission – already viewed as a partisan institution that favors the ruling party – changed the position of polling booths so that they are now in full view of officials and political party agents, a move that fatally undermines the secrecy of the ballot.
Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s longtime enforcer and bag man, is the incumbent. He rose to power last November in the aftermath of a military coup, which played out live on national television. Mnangagwa and his cabal of generals-turned-politician desperately need international approval and political legitimacy. They are anxious to have a mountain of debt owed to the World Bank and other lenders forgiven so they can start borrowing again.
Some international observers appear ready to rubber stamp the vote despite rising concerns. The African Union (AU), for example, is hoping for elections to be minimally acceptable, with anything short of widespread violence likely to be given the stamp of approval. One ominous signal: to lead their delegation, the AU has tapped former Ethiopian leader Hailemariam Desalegn, whose party often won elections with 100 percent of the vote.
The British embassy in the capital Harare is also thought to be especially eager to normalise relations with Zimbabwe if the poll is “good enough.” A crude ethos has seemingly developed that a lack of violence somehow equates to a credible election. It does not.
On the contrary, however, the United States, Canada, Australia, and the European Union have been more skeptical. They collectively argue that Zimbabwe’s standard should not be merely surpassing its deeply flawed past, but rather following the country’s constitution, as well as regional standards and international norms, including the AU Charter on Democracy Elections and Governance.
Superficially, voting on July 30 will almost certainly appear better than past charades. A new biometric voters’ roll was created and international observers were invited. In a first for Zimbabwe — and a sign of how low the bar has become — opposition candidates have even been allowed to campaign relatively openly this time around.
But election observers should not be fooled. The lack of blood in the streets does not mean the vote reflects the will of the Zimbabwean citizenry.
Here are eight ways that the vote has already been rigged, hacked or altogether stolen:
The election body is not independent
The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) acts like a hyper-partisan arm of the ruling party, ZANU-PF, and its repeated behavior has gutted any credibility of the vote. No significant opposition party or civil society organisation — or credible diplomat — has any confidence that the ZEC can manage a fair poll.
Concerns with manipulation of the voter roll and ballot papers have been ignored
The ZEC resisted multiple requests for transparency in how the vote will be conducted. It released a final register without any process to fix existing errors. The opposition is convinced ballot paper alteration is a high risk, but ZEC officials have refused to disclose any details of how ballots were procured and printed — or why the ballot design inexplicably gives Mnangagwa a prime spot.
Integrity of the vote tally and data security
The ZEC has yet to clarify rules on vote counting, while the computer servers that will tally reports from the field are unknown. Fears are understandable after Kenya’s experience, where its High Court annulled an observer-endorsed vote after it was found the election’s computers were hacked.
Denial of fair access to media
Zimbabwe’s constitution and regional guidelines say that all parties should have equal access to the dominant state media. Yet the main newspapers, radio, and TV continue to be blatant propaganda mouthpieces for Zanu-PF.
Ballot secrecy has been deliberately undermined
Zanu-PF agents have systematically spread rumors that fingerprints from voter registration will allow the government to trace individual votes. This is both an effective and chilling threat since citizens — especially those in rural areas — recall 2008, when poll data was used to target violent attacks against opposition supporters. Three hundred people died, while others were beaten, raped and brutalised, and thousands had their homes burned to the ground.
Organised intimidation is subtle but widespread
Unknown militants (known locally as ‘mabhinya’) have suddenly appeared in villages as a flagrant effort to intimidate opposition supporters and voters. When your home has already been burned down once, it only takes a thug shaking a matchbox for people to receive the message.
Involvement of the security forces in the election
The army, which ousted Mugabe to install Mnangagwa last year, says it will transport ballot boxes to tallying centers. This is a clear violation of the constitution and another golden opportunity to manipulate votes. Recent viral videos have shown uniformed soldiers herding citizens to attend Mnangagwa rallies and policemen voting early under the watchful eye of their commanders.
Military refusal to accept the outcome
Military leaders have in the past declared that they would only accept a Zanu-PF president. A sitting cabinet minister recently repeated this claim— and kept his job. A common belief is that the coup makers did not take such a risk only to hand power to an opposition party eight months later.
Observers have already begun to arrive in Zimbabwe to assess the validity of the vote on July 30. At this time, segments of the international community appear untroubled by the double standard that flagrantly flawed elections are somehow acceptable in Africa. This is disrespectful and unsustainable. As we have written previously, election observers need to start doing their jobs. Too often, the election cops are letting the election thieves get away or — worse — they are aiding and abetting the theft.
Under the current conditions, it is apparent that a free, fair and credible election is not possible in Zimbabwe. That so many people across the country — particularly the youth — remain undaunted by these major trials, offers a ray of hope. The world should speak up and stand with them.
Todd Moss, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, is senior fellow at the Center for Global Development. Jeffrey Smith is executive director of Vanguard Africa, a nonprofit group that supports free and fair elections in Africa.