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Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections
Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections
Tensions Rise Ahead of Zimbabwe’s Elections
Tensions Rise Ahead of Zimbabwe’s Elections
A polling agent looks on while a voter dips her finger in the inedible ink during parliamentary by-elections at a polling station in Bulawayo on 10 June 2015. AFP/Zinyange Auntony
Commentary / Africa

Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections

The ruling ZANU-PF is exploiting the many weaknesses of Zimbabwe’s electoral system to outpace the country’s divided opposition. Yet without a real change of policy, the country seems doomed to steeper decline.

The landslide victory of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party in a 21 January by-election in Zimbabwe’s Bikita West constituency is a troubling bellwether for the future of the country. It signals that presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-2018 are unlikely to be credible, free or fair, and also that without fundamental change through a legitimate election, Harare will maintain the self-destructive policies that have done so much damage.

In Bikita West, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) candidate, Beauty Chabaya, promoted from its provincial women’s league, won with 77.9 per cent of the vote. The opposition complained of assaults, intimidation and threats of retribution by senior ZANU-PF figures against disloyal voters – the identification of whom was easier as voting results are broken down by polling station. Local party structures and traditional authorities also helped to monitor voters and in the run-up to the poll reportedly manipulated the distribution of food aid and farming inputs.

President Mugabe sent a clear directive that the constituency be won at all costs

The Bikita West vote was the latest in a series of by-elections being watched for how Zimbabwe and the ZANU-PF will fare, not just in next year’s elections, but also during the transition from more than three decades of rule by the ailing President Robert Mugabe, 92.

Zimbabwe’s Relentless Decline

Credible elections in 2018 will be crucial for arresting Zimbabwe’s precipitous decline. Considered a middle-income country in the 1990’s, the economy nearly halved in the 2000s and has not recovered since. A large number of skilled workers in the government and private sector have left the country. According to the World Bank, 72 per cent of the population is poor and 20 per cent live in extreme poverty.

Zimbabweans, despite exposure to much poor governance, put great store in a legitimate electoral process leading to reform. But this will require more than simply depoliticising the institutional machinery responsible for elections. More years of unchanged policies would further entrench a corrupt government and predatory state incapable of decisive change, leading to further social stagnation, economic slowdown and risks for the future stability and development of the region.

More years of unchanged policies would further entrench a corrupt government and predatory state incapable of decisive change

The opposition has struggled to make an impact following the 2013 elections defeat of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and subsequent turmoil within that party that resulted in the vacation of many parliamentary seats. The main opposition’s subsequent boycott has allowed ZANU-PF to win all but one of more than 20 post-2013 by-election contests and grow its two-thirds majority in parliament.

The ruling party’s shock loss in the Norton constituency in the October 2016 by-election was seen by some as a sign of its vulnerability. The MDC-T and Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People’s First (ZimPF) coordinated with disaffected war veterans to elect the independent candidate, Themba Mliswa (a former ZANU-PF parliamentarian and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s cousin). Some argue Mliswa’s victory demonstrated that a unified opposition could win, even without meaningful electoral reforms. 

But others contend that the loss was a result of a contest between ZANU-PF factions, and that the nominally independent Mliswa was a stalking horse for Vice President Mnangagwa against the official ZANU-PF candidate, Ronald Chindedza, who was loyal to a rival faction of the party.

ZANU-PF’s Show of Force

There were no signs of ruling party vulnerability in Bikita West: President Mugabe sent a clear directive that the constituency be won at all costs; ZANU-PF presented a united front; and MDC-T and war veterans did not close ranks behind the main opposition candidate, ZimPF’s Kudakwashe Gopo.

Opposition parties continue to talk, but, riven by infighting, have neither fully joined forces, nor been able to take advantage of ZANU-PF’s internal discord either. ZANU-PF’s most significant challenge remains the choice of Mugabe’s successor. Mugabe was re-endorsed at the party’s National Conference in December as its presidential candidate for the 2018 elections, when he will be 94. With his physical capacities visibly waning, his failure to put in place a clear succession plan appears to be designed both to temper the ambitions of Mnangagwa, who is regarded by many as an obvious heir, and also to soothe the frustrations of those opposed to the vice president. The intra-party discord and jockeying is likely to frustrate political and economic reform and thus Western re-engagement.

But that is not enough to make the opposition trust institutions like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the police and the courts

The sweeping victory for the ruling party in Bikita West raises deeper questions about the scale of popular support for the opposition. The National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA), an umbrella opposition campaigning platform, retains an official position of boycotting elections until the process is reformed, but has failed to present a united political front. The MDC-T has boycotted all by-elections because promised reforms remain largely unaddressed, but others have joined in to varying extents.

It is unclear why ZimPF, a member of NERA, put up a candidate in the Bikita West election at all. There were internal ZimPF tensions over whether or not to participate, and the provincial party leaders who pushed against it have now resigned. In the end, the failure of ZimPF’s candidate in Bikita West has now damaged ZimPF leader Mujuru’s prospects of leading an opposition coalition in the 2018 elections.

Addressing Zimbabwe’s Electoral Weakness

ZANU-PF vehemently denies allegations by the opposition and civil society of wrongdoing in Bikita West. But that is not enough to make the opposition trust institutions like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the police and the courts, which should be able to combat these violations. Severely underfunded after producing reports critical of the government, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) cannot launch a serious inquiry into the elections.

The region could help. The Southern Africa Development Community and African Union have developed a framework for electoral conditions, and should launch an assessment of Zimbabwe’s democratic progress and shortfalls. They should carefully consider the concerns raised by NERA and others, and propose realistic reform implementation timelines ahead of the polls.

Powers from further afield will be less willing to engage the more compromised the legitimacy of the regime becomes. Even then they will have to tread carefully, balancing support for improving institutional capacities and addressing problems, without inadvertently adding to distortions of what is already a skewed electoral environment.

The March by-election in Mwenezi East promises to test conditions once again, as a senior ZimPF leader and former ZANU-PF firebrand, Kudakwashe Bhasikiti, runs in his former constituency. The Bikita West by-election highlights how much still needs to be done – both by the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition.        

A woman walks past election posters in Harare, Zimbabwe, 19 July, 2018. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Q&A / Africa

Tensions Rise Ahead of Zimbabwe’s Elections

On 30 July Zimbabwe will hold elections. For the first time since independence Robert Mugabe is not a candidate. His successor presents himself as a reformer – but many doubt the polls will be clean. The opposition warns that Zimbabweans will not tolerate another stolen election.

What’s so important about the credibility of these polls?

On 30 July 2018 Zimbabweans will go to the polls to elect a president, parliamentarians and local councillors. The elections are an unprecedented opportunity for Zimbabweans to choose who they believe can deliver economic recovery after decades of violent, predatory and authoritarian rule by former President Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). This will be the first vote since a Very Peculiar Coup in November 2017 ousted Mugabe and made way for President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a 75-year-old ZANU-PF stalwart. Mnangagwa is contesting the election on pledges of reform and economic recovery. He vows that, in a break from the past, these polls will be free and fair.

His administration recognises that, to forge the new social contract Mnangagwa promises, both voters and in particular Zimbabwe’s international backers must have confidence that the vote was indeed clean. Having come to power on the back of a “military-assisted transition”, Mnangagwa and his advisers know they cannot reform governance and promote economic growth without sustained international re-engagement. Most major donors and investors have signalled that credible elections are an important precondition.

The elections are an unprecedented opportunity for Zimbabweans to choose who they believe can deliver economic recovery after decades of violent, predatory and authoritarian rule.

Earlier this year, analysts opined that ZANU-PF would win comfortably and that the opposition would struggle to prevent the ruling party from securing a two-thirds majority in parliament. Opinion polls now suggest a much tighter race that could threaten the interests of ZANU-PF elites. Those elites will be determined to hold onto power; a run-off, required if no presidential candidate wins more than 50 per cent in the first round, could be particularly fraught.

Tensions have mounted between the main opposition alliance and the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), whose independence opposition and civil society leaders increasingly question. The UN has raised concerns about the growing number of reports of voter intimidation and threats of violence, especially in rural areas where two thirds of the electorate reside. The police refused to allow an opposition demonstration against the ZEC on 25 July – an echo of past practices of political restriction that has exacerbated friction. Some have cautioned the opposition against pursuing confrontational tactics, but its leaders increasingly worry that the election will not be free and fair.

Overall, many outside powers are eager to re-engage after years of isolating Zimbabwe, which may lead some to gloss over flaws.

Can the opposition mount a credible campaign?

Mnangagwa’s main challenger is Nelson Chamisa, the 40-year-old candidate of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance, which brings together seven opposition parties. Its policy is not very different from Mnangawa’s, and both claim they are best positioned to deliver economic recovery. The electorate must choose between the largely untested MDC Alliance and a ruling party claiming it has reformed.

Many observers say that conditions for elections have improved. Most obviously, there is greater political space for opposition parties to operate in predominantly rural parts of the country where they were previously barred. The MDC Alliance has held dozens of rallies and other events in these areas over the past two months. But it must dispel entrenched misperceptions of its leaders and policies that the state-run media, the only news source with a nationwide reach, has spread for many years. In addition, the opposition has far less money than ZANU-PF, which, according to civil society groups, benefits from leveraging off state resources.

Almost 5.7 million Zimbabweans are registered to vote [...], more than ever before.

Almost 5.7 million Zimbabweans are registered to vote (out of an estimated 14 million total population), more than ever before. Surveys indicate that 88 per cent of registered voters intend to cast a ballot. This includes more urban voters (who traditionally favour the opposition) than before and an unprecedented number of youth (over 60 per cent of registered voters are 40 or under). The government refused, however, to back the constitutional changes necessary for millions in the diaspora to vote, a longstanding opposition and civil society demand.

In the past, coercion and physical force were integral to Zimbabwe’s “guided” democracy, in which the ruling party under Mugabe curtailed political rights and freedoms. So far, there have been relatively few incidents of overt violence in the lead-up to this year’s polls, but June and July have brought widespread reports of threats and intimidation. As the 20 July Afrobarometer national survey shows, both the legacy of fear and the expectation of future abuse remain strong. Seventy-six per cent of those surveyed say they are still careful about what they say about politics and 43 per cent fear there will be election violence.

Do Zimbabweans trust that the elections will be free and fair?  

The Afrobarometer survey, as well as a study by the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, show that over 40 per cent of the public distrusts the ZEC. The ZEC has a history of partisanship in favour of the ruling party – it still has commissioners and senior staff who endorsed the violent 2008 presidential run-off, which was rejected by African election observers. The opposition have repeatedly complained about the military’s influence in the ZEC. Its chairperson, Justice Priscilla Chigumba, recently acknowledged that 15 per cent of its staff had been Zimbabwe Defence Force members, but were no longer military employees.

The ZEC also could have done more to make the 2018 vote preparations more transparent and inclusive. Instead, it has adopted a narrow legalistic interpretation of its mandate, rebuffing reasonable MDC Alliance and civil society demands that would contribute to enhancing its credibility.

Zimbabweans appear happy with the introduction of a biometric voters’ roll, meant to reduce the incidence of fraud.

Overall, Zimbabweans appear happy with the introduction of a biometric voters’ roll, meant to reduce the incidence of fraud. But the ZEC did not give civil society groups and opposition parties access to the final roll until 25 July, and refused an independent audit, even though donors offered to pay for it. The ZEC claims it is not legally obligated to conduct an audit. This is true, but by passing on an audit the ZEC missed an important opportunity to boost its own credibility and that of voter data – all the more important given unresolved controversies around the 2013 voters’ roll.

Other factors that undermine confidence in the ZEC include the lack of transparency in the printing and design of paper ballots. For example, no explanation was given as to why and how President Mnangagwa has one of the two top positions on the double-column ballot. Concerns about secrecy were fuelled when ZANU-PF inexplicably obtained a database of registered voters’ mobile phone numbers, which it has been using to canvass support. The MDC Alliance, other oppositionists and civil society groups lodged complaints – at the time of writing, these are largely unresolved.

These issues compound growing concerns that the elections will be stolen. As tensions mounted with the ZEC, the MDC Alliance threatened to stop the elections. But on 25 July Chamisa committed to participation, at the same time warning the ruling party and ZEC that they would “face the music if they rig or cheat”. Mnangaagwa and senior ministers are on record stating that they will accept defeat, but there are deep suspicions, fed by leaked intelligence reports, that the security power bloc that brought him to power in November will not. An MDC victory or a run-off may generate the conditions that lead to a repeat of the chaotic and violent 2008 polls.

A pre-election assessment by the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, a leading civil society network of 30 civil society organisations, found widespread misuse of government resources by ZANU-PF. This practice is common in Zimbabwe, and rarely receives detailed attention from election observers, in part because it is difficult to measure. For example, the government started distributing farming supplies under a presidential scheme in what appears to be a crude vote-buying exercise. It has also distributed food aid at the same time and place that the opposition had scheduled rallies. ZANU-PF has continued to use school buildings and busses to force student attendance at political rallies, despite a court ruling, which ZANU-PF has appealed, prohibiting the practice. The courts also ruled that traditional leaders who receive government benefits may not publicly support ZANU-PF. Civil society reports suggest that traditional leaders remain a primary source of voter intimidation at the ruling party’s behest. For now, however, these court decisions have also been appealed, so the practices continue. Furthermore, even though the government is heavily in debt, in July it raised civil servants’ pay by 17.5 per cent and increased special allowances for military and police personnel. The ZEC has remained silent on all these issues.

The ZEC’s work is hampered by financial and technical shortfalls. It has refused Western donors’ offers from of funding, because the money was tied to international monitoring of its technical capacities, the development of the voters’ roll and audits of those rolls. The government has not made up the shortfalls. These limitations play out on several fronts, from weak management of voters’ roll development to poor communications and public relations and insufficient transparency. These issues have compounded frustrations and contributed to rising tensions.

Will the vote go to a second round? What would that mean?

According to survey data released on 20 July by Afrobarometer, 40 per cent of Zimbabweans will vote for Mnangagwa and 37 per cent for Chamisa, with 20 per cent undecided or unwilling to disclose their choice. These results, if accurate, would suggest the presidential contest is much closer than many had imagined. If no candidate secures more than 50 per cent of the vote on 30 July, there will be a run-off on 8 September.

The last time this happened, in 2008, ZANU-PF in cahoots with the military used massive coercion and violence to swing the vote for Mugabe. The ZANU-PF government was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of opposition activists and thousands of assaults. The ZEC certified the 2008 vote, but most international observers, including both the African Union (AU) and the regional body, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), rejected it.

President Mnangagwa recently publicly denied that violence occurred during this period – perhaps understandably, since many of his detractors hold him and other members of the executive directly responsible. Still, tensions will rise significantly if there is a second round and the ruling party’s hold on power appears under threat. ZANU-PF and security elites could be tempted to use violence to influence the outcome. In the event of a run-off, international actors should step up their diplomatic engagement – and the SADC and AU observer teams should extend and expand their presence on the ground – to help deter violence.  

Does the military present a threat to these elections?

Over 40 per cent of Zimbabweans fear the military will intervene in the election, according to Afrobarometer. For many years Zimbabwe Defence Forces leaders have said they would support only a political leader with liberation movement credentials. (Chamisa was born two years before independence.) In November 2017 they waded into ZANU-PF’s factional struggles, forcing Mugabe to step down and allowing Mnangagwa to take over. Since then, senior ZANU-PF politicians have said the military would never accept an MDC victory.

In early July, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces gave a press conference to refute allegations that it engages in partisan political activities across Zimbabwe. The military claimed that it would uphold the constitution. Yet critics point out that it did not do so when it pushed out Mugabe. There are ever more reports, from a range of civil society and political party sources, that soldiers are stationed across the country, with many out of uniform. At the July press conference, the military acknowledged that soldiers are dispersed throughout the country, but claimed they are home on leave or deployed for official duties, such as patrolling borders and in the state-directed Command Agriculture program. It is widely assumed by civil society and opposition parties, however, that they are assisting ZANU-PF. The defence forces label the media and civil society reports as “irresponsible”, though the same allegations originated from senior former members of ZANU-PF close to the top brass.  

What happens if there are disputes or election violence this time around?

The ZEC considers its multi-party liaison committees – established at national, provincial and district levels – as the primary dispute resolution mechanism. But it has not made these committees’ minutes or decisions public. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches recently wrote a public letter to the ZEC that noted the public was losing faith that these committees would settle disagreements rationally and fairly.

In May, the ZEC, in collaboration with two other largely untested and under resourced statutory bodies, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and National Peace and Reconciliation Commission, established a special committee to investigate political violence ahead of the 2018 polls.

In late June, political parties signed a peace pledge designed to strengthen the political code of conduct. The judiciary also has set up fast-track courts to try perpetrators of politically motivated violence. Special prosecutors and magistrates have been appointed to handle such cases.

What role will election observers play?

Election observer missions will play an important role. President Mnangagwa recognised their participation would strengthen the credibility of the election process and has opened Zimbabwe’s doors to a number of observer organisations, several of which were denied access over the last sixteen years. These include missions from the European Union (EU), the Commonwealth, the Carter Center, and the National Democratic and International Republican Institutes, as well as the AU and SADC from closer to home. Yet long-term observation began only in late June (EU) and early July (AU and SADC), which restricts what they can monitor, especially regarding the political environment, and both the AU and SADC teams on the ground are relatively small. The AU, for example, has deployed fourteen long-term observers with a core team of four and will deploy 50 short-term observers for polling and counting. They will remain in Zimbabwe until mid-August, unless there is a run-off. The SADC team has 63 observers deployed nationally. The EU has the biggest mission, deployed across the country, and it will expand to more than 140 persons for the actual balloting. It will remain in country for up to two months after the polls to observe the tabulation of results and dispute resolution. According to the ZEC, there are over 600 foreign observers in total.

It will be difficult to judge objectively whether the polls are free and fair. Observer missions should ensure they factor the playing field and campaign environment into their assessments, and not just base them on voting and counting alone.

With almost 11,000 polling stations, many in remote areas, international missions must rely on reports by political parties and approximately 6,000 accredited domestic observers. Their vigilance and the quality of their reporting, along with polling agents, will be essential for deterring election violations and informing international groups.

As always, but particularly in these elections, it will be difficult to judge objectively whether the polls are free and fair. Observer missions should ensure they factor the playing field and campaign environment into their assessments, and not just base them on voting and counting alone. They also should explain and substantiate their conclusions. Inexplicably, SADC never made its final 2013 Zimbabwe election observation report available. That omission should not be repeated.

While the EU observation missions tend to be more experienced and technically proficient, the AU and SADC evaluations are likely to generate more attention, particularly from regional states likely to give them the greatest credence, as in the past. In 2000 and 2002, the two bodies’ observer missions disagreed about whether the elections were free and fair. Observer missions should try to coordinate their findings to avoid similar confusion, which could compound the challenge of a contested outcome.

These elections could be [Zimbabwe]’s most consequential since independence in 1980. Turnout will be a key factor.

According to many analysts and political players, these elections could be the country’s most consequential since independence in 1980. Turnout will be a key factor. No more than 3.4 million Zimbabweans have voted in any previous poll. Yet notwithstanding all the unresolved concerns, Zimbabweans appear keen to participate this time around. If voters turn out in large numbers, and the outcome is credible, these polls may help lay the foundation for Zimbabwe’s recovery from years of misrule. If, however, the outcome is disputed by either of the main protagonists, violence is likely. Violence will almost certainly dash the prospects of governance reform, international re-engagement and much-needed economic revitalisation, which would help just not Zimbabwe, but all of southern Africa.