Zimbabwe: Prospects from a Flawed Election
Zimbabwe: Prospects from a Flawed Election
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe
Revolt and Repression in Zimbabwe
Report 138 / Africa

Zimbabwe: Prospects from a Flawed Election

The regional mediation offering the most realistic chance to resolve Zimbabwe’s eight-year crisis has failed. South African President Thabo Mbeki’s stated objective in talks between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was to secure conditions for free and fair elections that would produce an undisputed outcome.

Executive Summary

The regional mediation offering the most realistic chance to resolve Zimbabwe’s eight-year crisis has failed. South African President Thabo Mbeki’s stated objective in talks between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was to secure conditions for free and fair elections that would produce an undisputed outcome. But on 29 March 2008, Zimbabwe will hold elections already flawed by pre-poll misbehaviour, notwithstanding what may occur on polling day and thereafter. The results are likely to be heatedly disputed. Though the playing field is far from even, and efforts to create a united opposition have failed, ex-ZANU-PF politburo member Simba Makoni is seriously challenging Robert Mugabe’s re-election. The 84-year-old president probably has the means to manipulate the process sufficiently to retain his office, though possibly only after a violent run-off, but there is little prospect of a government emerging that is capable of ending the crisis. If the situation deteriorates, the African Union (AU) needs to be ready to offer prompt mediation for a power-sharing agreement between presidential contenders and creation of a transitional government with a reform agenda.

Primary responsibility for the failure of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) initiative lies with Mugabe. He and his party conceded changes to security, media and election laws, while obtaining MDC acceptance of a constitutional amendment that paved the way for simultaneous presidential, parliamentary and local government elections and facilitated his opportunity to use the parliament to select his own eventual successor. But at the end of January 2008, Mugabe unilaterally called snap elections and ruled out passage before the polls of the new constitution that was supposed to be the single most important product of the negotiations. ZANU-PF has subsequently been using all the extensive means at its disposal to maintain an unfair advantage. The bitterly divided opposition must also share blame: it gained relevancy from the mediation but was unable to agree on an electoral strategy at a time of acute national crisis, thus exposing a serious failure of leadership. The MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai retains a following and may reach a run-off against Mugabe but appears to have little chance of election.

Makoni, who is also a former finance minister and head of SADC, announced his presidential candidacy on 5 February. This first open challenge to Mugabe from within the ruling party since independence in 1980 is engineered by some ZANU-PF heavyweights, notably retired General Solomon Mujuru in the background and former liberation war commander Dumiso Dabengwa in public. While some of Makoni’s backers are driven by economic self-interest, others want genuine change and have made overtures to the MDC for a government of national unity; Arthur Mutambara has put his breakaway MDC faction behind the ruling party renegade. Makoni’s candidacy is viewed favourably by regional governments, who have long considered a reformed ZANU-PF able to control the security apparatus the most desirable transition option.

Makoni’s late entry and limited grassroots support, as well as the opaque nature of his establishment backing work against him, but his challenge has thrown ZANU-PF into turmoil and left Mugabe unsure of his allies. Influential actors within the security apparatus are quietly lining up behind Makoni. Mugabe, however, is likely prepared to do whatever is necessary to defeat him, quite possibly including escalation of violence in the event of a run-off, even at the risk of sparking bloody factional fighting within ZANU-PF.

Only “friendly” countries and institutions have been invited to observe the polls, and it is critical that the AU and SADC judge the overall electoral environment and preparations, not just conduct on election day itself, in strict accordance with their regional principles. In the event the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which he appears to dominate, declares Mugabe the winner in the face of massive abuse and manipulation of the overall process, the outcome should be rejected. While the national circumstances are different, if the situation deteriorates the AU should have contingency plans in place to offer emergency diplomatic assistance to the parties as it did recently to defuse the Kenya crisis. 

A negotiated settlement need not necessarily remove Mugabe. He might, for example, serve as a non-executive head of state during a transitional period until new elections can be held. The important point at this stage is for the region to be prepared to act quickly if, as is likely, the elections do not produce a clearly legitimate government that can deal with a national crisis whose consequences are increasingly being felt beyond Zimbabwe’s borders, especially in terms of migrant pressures. With South Africa and SADC having lost some credibility, the AU needs to take the lead.  

Events in Zimbabwe are outrunning international policy. If the elections go badly, so that violence increases, the humanitarian crisis grows worse, and the population exodus puts the stability of regional neighbours under greater pressure, the Security Council may yet need to take up the deteriorating situation. For now, the wider international community must be ready to provide concerted backing to an AU-led mediation, including by offering an economic and political recovery program guided by principles of good governance and designed to promote institutional and security sector reform. The EU and U.S. have little appetite to re-engage with a ZANU-PF dominated government, particularly if there is still a place in it for Mugabe, but if that is the result of a genuinely negotiated agreement that aims at reconciliation and renewal, they should not hold back.

Pretoria/Brussels, 20 March 2008

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