This election is meant to be different. When Robert Mugabe was forced into retirement, Zimbabweans were promised a new country.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who led the November coup, said he would open up political space and ensure that the next election was free, fair and credible.
“We are saying that Zimbabwe will never be the same again,” he told a ruling party rally this weekend.
Mnangagwa has delivered on some fronts. There has been noticeably less physical intimidation of potential voters, particularly when compared with the 2008 general elections.
And opposition parties have been allowed to campaign freely in areas that are considered Zanu-PF strongholds. This would have been unthinkable in any previous election.
But Mnangagwa has failed to address more fundamental flaws. Of particular concern is the independence — or lack thereof — of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which has made several bizarre decisions that appear to favour Mnangagwa.
A major issue is the new voters’ roll, which is littered with at least 250 000 irregular entries. These anomalies greatly heighten the risk of electoral fraud — especially when coupled with the strong performance of the opposition coalition, Nelson Chamisa’s Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, which means the vote on Monday is too close to call.
Both the means and the motivation to rig the vote exists but there is still time to ensure that Mnangagwa keeps his promise of a credible election. The best way to do this is simply to vote, because a strong voter turnout makes it exponentially more difficult for anyone to manipulate results.
At the same time, the regional and international community can make it clear that it will not endorse a suspicious process.
South Africa can play a key role here: for too long, under the mantra of “quiet diplomacy”, the silence of our diplomats has enabled Zimbabwe’s democratic processes to be abused without sanction.
If these elections really are going to be different, South Africa will have to take a much stronger stand.