Observers’ polls barometer too simplistic

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The long-awaited general elections have finally been undertaken and although all official results have not been released, it looks like President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF party have secured a major victory enabling the party to form a government on its own after four years of a turbulent coalition arrangement.

Although all the results have not been announced, African observers have already given the polls the thumbs-up citing the peaceful environment under which the elections were held.

When observers issue positive reports, it should build trust in the democratic process and enhance the legitimacy of the government that emerges from elections.

But when a positive report is hastily issued, it can also leave no room to correct irregularities of the electoral process, which were rampant in the polls we just emerged from. While elections have traditionally been interpreted as fair and competitive just as long as they were free of blatant fraud on elections day and violence, it is shocking to note that observers continue to use the simple method of the absence of brutality to okay rigged polls.

Election observers have failed to deter manipulation and fraud, or expose such problems when they occur because of this blinkered method they continue to employ regardless of the fact that incumbent ruling parties have developed rigging strategies that aim to fix the outcome of political contests weeks, months, or even years before the ballots are cast.

Yes, there was limited violence in the run-up to the polls and voting proceeded peacefully on Wednesday, but that does not mean the process was not exploited, distorted and mutilated to give Zanu PF the resounding victory it is claiming. Can one conclude that the outcome reflects the free choices of the Zimbabwean electorate by limiting one’s observations to conditions on elections day?

Politics in Zimbabwe is now big business as it confers instant prominence and wealth. Those who today are at the helm of national affairs cannot contemplate life on the other side of the political fence. Hence their goal is to win elections while avoiding the brazen acts of vote rigging that inevitably trigger international outrage that accompanied the aftermath of the disputed and bloody 2008 vote.

We would have thought that by now, observers know that rigging is a holistic process that entails control of the judiciary, electoral commissions, security agencies and the media. It is designed to shape the outcome without losing a crucial veneer of plausibility. Our elections were seriously marred by the erosion of democratic institutions under the current government.

We believe to a far greater degree that the results were determined by Zanu PF’s interventions well before the elections.

Mugabe and Zanu PF enjoy a virtual monopoly of public media. The system controls the country’s sole broadcaster which has effectively shut out other political parties.

Pseudo political analysts and commentators regularly indulged in tirades against the MDC formations and their supporters without giving them the right of reply. The voters’ roll was in shambles and only availed to other political parties on elections day, but observers ignored all this.

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