AFTER more than a decade of political and economic turmoil, which was briefly interrupted by the coalition government between 2009 and this year, Zimbabweans will on July 31 go to critical general elections in a bid to break a running political stalemate which has nearly left the country as a failed state.
Column by Velempini Khumalo
Of course, Zimbabwe did not become a failed state, but remains a fragile state which is significantly susceptible to crises given its brittle institutional arrangements and sub-systems.
Since 1980, Zimbabwe has been vulnerable to internal and external shocks or domestic and international conflicts as shown by the situation in Matabeleland and Midlands in the 1980s; events during the second decade of independence following the adoption of the International Monetary Fund-inspired reforms in 1991 and towards the end of that decade when the labour movement became restless due to economic decline; and the explosive coalescing of democratic forces against authoritarian Zanu PF rule in the late 1990s, leading to the formation of the MDC in 1999.
Events between 2000 and now have shown that Zimbabwe is a fragile state with weak institutional arrangements that embody and perhaps preserve the conditions of crisis, politically, economically and socially.
Politically, the country is volatile due to the persistent stalemate caused by disputed elections results and institutions that entrench exclusionary coalitions in power along ethnic, regional and factional lines, a situation exacerbated by fragmented security agencies that dabble in politics.
In economic terms, the situation is unstable since radical policies such as land reform and indigenisation were adopted in the middle of an economy which was already reeling from extended periods of mismanagement.
Socially, Zimbabwe has extreme inequalities and poor delivery of services, particularly water, electricity, health and education.
Given the current situation, Zimbabwe’s next elections will be fought in different political and socio-economic conditions.
Since the coalition government came in 2009, the political and economic situation has relatively stabilised after the country adopted a multicurrency system which led to the end of hyperinflation and tangible changes on people’s lives and social conditions.
This has created a new environment in which the parties have never engaged in an electoral battle before.
The change is also demonstrated by the drop in political violence and intimidation. While there are still skirmishes, the brutality of the previous elections has largely disappeared as parties preach messages of peace and hope to ensure free and fair elections.
Opinion surveys show Zimbabweans remain anxiously uncertain about the political future of their country. Despite cautious optimism the next elections could bring definite change, many continue to fear the uncertain future they face.
Amid claims in opinion polls that President Robert Mugabe and Zanu PF have recovered support due to the controversial land reform and indigenisation programmes — which in reality have not changed the living conditions of an average Zimbabwean despite researches and books written to justify them — backed by their liberation struggle, independence and sovereignty mantras, while Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC-T party have lost ground due to their mediocre performance in the coalition government and mismanagement of local authorities, uncertainty has become the biggest variable in the next elections.
Apart from party political fanatics who will vote for their organisations and candidates even if they have not delivered and are unlikely to deliver, Zimbabweans in general say they do not know who will win the next elections even if there is growing fear of rigging after Mugabe unilaterally proclaimed elections dates with the support of the judiciary.
The chaotic voter registration process and special voting fiasco, which were beset by complaints and disputes, have given rise to the belief the elections would be rigged, hence lead to the rejection of the results. That will take Zimbabwe back to square one.
Optimists, however, say it is possible clean winners and gracious losers will emerge. This is what Tsvangirai said he was told by Mugabe at one time before he realised he was being taken for a ride.
Pessimists do not only talk of disputed outcomes, but a possible military intervention if Mugabe loses, although analysts see this as a remote possibility given internal and geo-political dynamics around Zimbabwe.
Dumiso Dabengwa has probably provided the most candid assessment of the military factor in his few remarks on the issue than analysts and researchers have done in volumes of studies and comments. Dabengwa says the military will not be a major factor even if there is a decisive outcome against Mugabe.
In other words, they will only continue to be a factor before and after elections if only the people have not spoken clearly and emphatically.
Zimbabweans are torn apart between pushing for change and cynicism.
The new voters’ registration figures, which have pushed the number of registered voters above six million and the record electoral turnout of more than three million during the March constitutional referendum, show their enthusiasm about the upcoming elections despite the lingering fear, feeding off growing cynicism, of ballot fraud.
Fears of another stolen election, fuelled by Mugabe’s rivals who repeatedly flag the issue either as campaign strategy or a genuine concern, are growing by the day.
The situation is worsened by the fact that despite a change in the political and economic environment, some things have remained unchanged, especially institutions and individuals running elections.
As Botswana President Ian Khama said last year when his ally Tsvangirai was losing the plot, almost all of those who ran the past elections whose results were disputed amid accusations of human rights abuses and ballot rigging, are still in charge.
To make matters worse, the reform process is stalled and by the time it ground to a halt, it had not gone far enough to clean the system to allow the country to start on a new slate.
The state machinery which organises or has a bearing on the electoral process, including the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Registrar-General’s Office, military, judiciary and public media (witness the propaganda overdrive at the state-controlled Zimpapers and ZBC), remain intact, meaning the people accused of manipulating and rigging elections before are still in place.
As the Global Political Agreement (GPA) staggers to an end, the dumping of the roadmap, reform deficits, limited electoral institutional capacity and credibility, the rejection of a United Nations (UN) electoral needs assessment mission linked to funding of the polls and Mugabe’s defiance of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), all show a continued absence of conditions for peaceful and credible elections, despite the new constitution adopted in March 2013.
Zimbabwe has not invited the UN to observe the elections. It has invited the Sadc, Comesa and African Union (AU).
Individual countries, which include Algeria, Kenya and Uganda, have also been invited. From Asia, countries invited included China, India, Indonesia, Iran and Malaysia, while from the Americas invitations have gone to Brazil, Jamaica, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
The European Union (EU) and United States observers have either not been invited or turned down. It was the expulsion of the EU head of the observer mission to Zimbabwe, Pierre Schori, in 2002 which triggered Western sanctions against Mugabe and his cronies.
This means international legitimacy is likely to be denied to the winner, especially if it is Mugabe, despite that Western countries have of late been pushing for rapprochement with Harare.
This leaves Zimbabweans — scarred by seemingly endless political wars raging for over a decade now — torn in all directions during this election period.
Zimbabweans in general jump from great anticipation the next elections will be a watershed and bring change to their lives to fear of rigging which will keep things as they are, showing how people are politically tormented by the current situation and attendant uncertainty.
What is clear though is that the next elections will be the most important since the country’s Independence from Britain in 1980 as they have the potential to usher in a new political dispensation or perpetuate the old order after the country has gone through a four-year transitional arrangement.
This followed a disputed presidential election run-off in June 2008 in which at least 200 mainly MDC-T supporters were killed in an electoral bloodbath triggered by the military which spearheaded a campaign of brutality to rescue Mugabe from the jaws of defeat after he had lost the first round of polling to his archrival, Tsvangirai.
Following the bloody June 2008 presidential election run-off and the rejection of Mugabe’s disputed victory, Sadc, under the tutelage of former South African president Thabo Mbeki — likely to bounce back as head of the AU election observer mission with ex-Nigerian leader Olusegun Obasanjo — pressured Zimbabwe’s main political leaders to sign the GPA and form the coalition government to give the country a respite to prepare for new free and fair elections.
Throughout the four-year tenure of the unity government, Zanu PF and the two MDC parties, their principals and Sadc leaders, via their current South African facilitator President Jacob Zuma and summits, battled to implement the GPA reforms and the attendant roadmap.
Summit after summit resolved Zimbabwe parties must implement the GPA and roadmap before elections are held.
During their Maputo summit last month, Sadc leaders once again emphasised that parties to the GPA must “undertake immediate measures to create a conducive environment for the holding of peaceful, credible, free and fair elections”.
However, given the unprocedural proclamation of the election date and illegal Electoral Act amendments, chaotic voter registration exercise which disenfranchised thousands of people as well as the messy special voting process, the situation seriously threatens Zimbabweans’ rights to freely and fairly vote on July 31.
Thus, turmoil is becoming increasingly inevitable by the day, leaving the country on the edge.
Khumalo studied political science, government, business and ethics, and international relations at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa.