Preparing for a Rigged Result
Preparing for a Rigged Result
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Preparing for a Rigged Result

This Saturday [29 March], Zimbabwe holds elections that promise to be chaotic and possibly violent. The international community needs to have contingency plans to deal with further confrontation in a country steeped in crisis.

The polls mark several “firsts”. President Robert Mugabe faces the first open challenge from within his ruling ZANU-PF party in the shape of Simba Makoni, a former finance minister and respected technocrat. For the first time then Mugabe faces two serious opponents: Makoni and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The three-man race raises the possibility of yet another first: a run-off election between the top two candidates if none captures 51% in the first round.

But this is where the firsts end. As usual, the government’s systematic abuses that marred previous elections are being repeated and are expected to continue up to, through and after the vote, especially as they spread confusion over complex new election rules. Above all, 84-year old Mugabe, at the helm for almost three decades, shows no sign of being prepared to accept defeat. He is apt to do whatever it takes to stay at State House, including escalating violence.

A year ago, the Southern African Development Community nominated President Thabo Mbeki to mediate talks between ZANU-PF and the divided opposition. Mbeki publicly stated that the priority of his mediation was to guarantee free, fair and undisputed elections. Mugabe vetoed this. No matter what happens on polling day, the election is already marred by pre-poll misbehaviour and the outcome likely to be hotly disputed.

Only “friendly” international observers will be allowed on the ground for these elections. But it is critical that the African Union and the Southern African Development Community judge the overall electoral environment, and not just the voting on the day itself, in strict accordance with their regional principles. The refusal of all-African observer missions to endorse Kenya’s rigged elections is an example worth following.

Across the board, electoral preparations have been flawed. Constituency demarcation was an exercise in gerrymandering, the voters roll is littered with dead, ghost and transferred voters, and there are too few polling stations in urban centres where opposition support is strongest. While cleverly conceding to a package of reforms, ZANU-PF has used all the extensive means at its disposal to maintain an unfair advantage. It has waged a campaign of intimidation against all perceived opponents, and the state media is tantamount to a Mugabe mouthpiece. The military-security complex remains as entrenched as ever.

Saturday’s election takes place amid widespread suffering. Astronomic inflation has made the currency worthless. The new ten million dollar note buys just a loaf of bread. Food, fuel and essential medicines are in chronically short supply, and much of the working population has fled to South Africa and other neighbours in search of jobs. The government has cynically exploited this humanitarian catastrophe by manipulating aid and buying votes. Zimbabweans desperately want all this to end, but have little confidence elections can produce the change they desire.

Makoni’s late entry into the race has, however, generated some excitement. His challenge is engineered by ZANU-PF heavyweights -- though all but a handful remain in background. It has thrown the ruling party into turmoil and left Mugabe unsure of his allies. Makoni’s limited grassroots support and opaque establishment backing work against him but his challenge could open space at the top as it accelerates realignments in the faction-riddled ruling party. Whatever the outcome of the elections, ZANU-PF is a changed creature.

Three main election scenarios are possible:

  • Mugabe is declared winner in the first round. That would likely require massive rigging, even given the uneven playing field. It is expected to take five days for the election results to be announced. That provides the government-controlled electoral commission plenty of time for chicanery.
  • Run-off between Mugabe and Tsvangirai.  Depending on the scale of the rigging, the opposition leader stands a good chance of reaching a run-off. He commands loyal following even if his image has been tarnished by opposition in-fighting. If he must fight a run-off, Mugabe would prefer it to be against Tsvangirai because the ruling party would more readily rally behind the incumbent.
  • Run-off between Mugabe and Makoni. If party insiders mobilised sufficient support, Makoni could also reach a run-off. This is the worse-case scenario for Mugabe. ZANU-PF could split asunder and critical mass build if Makoni formed a united front with the opposition. The risk of factional violence would be high.

Mugabe could well power his way to victory even in such a scenario. But none of the three scenarios, in the extent to which they result in his re-election, can produce a government capable of ending Zimbabwe’s crisis.

In the face of massive rigging and a bitter election dispute, the African Union must stand ready to mediate a power-sharing agreement to produce a transitional government with a reformist agenda. A settlement need not necessarily remove Mugabe. However unpalatable, it might be necessary for Mugabe to serve as a non-executive head of state during a transitional period in advance of fresh elections.

As in Kenya, the region’s leaders, with support from the West, must act quickly and robustly if the elections do not produce a legitimate government. Anything less and Zimbabwe’s dramatic downward slide will continue, and the ongoing struggle over Mugabe’s succession could easily provoke more bloodshed.

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