Zimbabwe election: As fair as was possible in a fiefdom

William Saunderson-Meyer says there is no reason, as yet, to believe that Zanu-PF did not win fairly


For a while there, Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF government must have been more than a little worried. After 38 years in power it was risking it all on a roll of the dice — the unfettered will of the electorate.

For the first time in 16 years, there would be election observers from the European Union, the United States, and the Commonwealth, instead of only from the dependably one-eyed observers sent by the Southern African Development Community and the African Union.

This was a nail-biting gamble by Emmerson “Crocodile” Mnangagwa, the man who had deposed Robert Mugabe, the country’s president since independence in 1980. It was high stakes affair, effectively the first time in almost two decades that the results would not be printed before the ballot papers.

As it happens, it was not even close. Zanu-PF achieved a two-third parliamentary majority and while the presidential race result was tighter, with Mnangagwa taking 50.8% to 44.4%. Unlike the Morgan Tsvangirai in 2008, Chamisa couldn’t even force a second round.

eventually announced they are likely to show a similar trouncing of the main contender, the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance’s Nelson Chamisa.

The polls had barely closed, before Chamisa proclaimed that the MDC’s figures showed that it had “resoundingly” won the election and all that was left was for the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to announce his victory. Any delay in doing so, or result to the contrary, would be proof that Zanu-PF had stolen the election.

It was a clever, manipulative ploy; the kind that our own populist puppeteer, Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader Julius Malema, would doubtlessly admire and in future might well emulate. It was also a cynically incendiary action in a country where political violence is always bubbling below the surface.

When the ZEC, which has performed more credibly this election than ever before, delayed announcing the presidential result in order to allow the trickle-release of parliamentary seats to be completed, the firing circuit was completed. Furious MDC supporters took to the streets and some stoned the security forces. 

Predictably, the military opened fire with automatic weapons and at least three people were killed. Equally predictably, the world’s attention shifted from what was, on the available evidence, as close to a “free and fair” election as one gets in a country that has been a one-party, one-man medieval fiefdom for almost 40 years, to television footage of street violence.

The government is warning the opposition not to mistake the democratic space that has opened up, post-Mugabe, as a sign of Zanu-PF weakness. Its opponents, in turn, point to the violence as a sign that Zanu-PF under the Crocodile is the vicious, scaly cunning creature that it always was.

It’s an unhappy reversion to entrenched antipathies that Zimbabwe, which is trying to rejoin the democratic world, cannot afford. And while Zanu-PF is undoubtedly loathsome, it is not for the world to dictate which swamp creature Zimbabweans should vote for.

While I am sceptical that Zanu-PF would indeed have surrendered power if it had lost, there is no reason, as yet, to believe that they did not win fairly. In fact, this result is pretty much on par with the MDC’s performance in the 2013 election, where the outcome — most observers agree — was parboiled rather than fully cooked.

The MDC, as yet, has provided no evidence of the enormous scale of rigging that would be necessary to reverse its self-proclaimed “exceedingly good” majority into a miserable 53 seats in a 210-seat chamber. It is difficult to believe, also, that such massive electoral fraud would escape the notice of literally thousands of MDC officials who helped oversee the process, as well as the international observer missions, diplomats, and journalists.

Although they had concerns over state media bias and a counting process that needed improvement, the African observer groups concluded that the election was peaceful, orderly and largely in line with the law. The EU observer mission’s assessment, too, was that despite the “unlevel playing field”, some pre-election voter intimidation, and the suspicion created by delays in releasing results — the election appeared substantively fair.

The EU did, however, leave the door open to a revision of opinion. The head of the EU observer mission said he did not yet know whether the shortcomings would have a material effect on the outcome of the vote.

That’s one of those cryptic equivocations that one must expect from a cover-your-arse career politician. It presumably means that unless the MDC gets the results overturned in the courts, or EU self-interests dictate otherwise, the result will be accepted but ring-fenced with caveats.

These caveats will presumably include Zanu-PF having to show some commitment to democracy and the rule of law, going into the future. That is exactly how it should be: some carrot, some stick.

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