A RETURN to protracted political crisis and possibly extensive violence, is likely, after Zimbabwe held inadequately prepared presidential, parliamentary and local elections on July 31.
By the International Crisis Group
Conditions for a free and fair vote did not exist. Confidence in the process and institutions was low. The voters’ roll was in shambles, security forces unreformed and the media grossly imbalanced. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) was under-funded and lacked time to prepare. Concerns about rigging were pervasive as strongly disputed results are highly likely.
The Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union (AU) face severe credibility tests. They must avoid a narrow technical approach. If the vote is deeply flawed, they should declare it illegitimate and press for a re-run after several months of careful preparation or, if that is not possible, facilitate negotiation of a compromise acceptable to the major parties; and strong diplomacy will be needed to forestall extensive violence if the presidential contest moves to a run-off in conditions like 2008, or, if President Robert Mugabe loses at any stage, to ensure a smooth transition.
Thirty-three years at the helm, Mugabe seeks to ensure his Zanu PF regains full control of government before embarking on a fraught succession process. Out-manoeuvring both the two rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) parties and Sadc, Zanu PF hardliners, supported by Mugabe, secured a Constitutional Court (Concourt) ruling that confirmed the premature elections date, shutting down in the process any prospects of necessary reform, around which there had appeared to be growing convergence between the MDCs and Sadc.
The regional body, as well as the AU, might have pressed harder for a postponement; however, in the end, they felt they had little option but to accept the sovereign decision of the newly constituted court. MDC formations favoured a later date, but could only cry foul and reluctantly agree to participate, since they knew a boycott would be counter-productive and that to remain relevant, they had to demonstrate their popular support.
With the campaign in full swing, Zanu PF had a strong resource advantage. The MDCs struggled to raise money but were relatively well-organised. Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC-T believed it could win the presidency, but feared the electoral commission was being undermined from within and could not deliver a free, fair, transparent and credible process.
Many expect a Mugabe victory, because “Zanu doesn’t lose elections”, and even if outvoted, as in the first round in 2008, its hardliners would not give up power. Its strategy was to get its supporters to the voting stations and keep the opposition away. Preventing manipulation of the voters’ roll and tabulation process were critical challenges, as in past polls, though both will potentially have greater scrutiny. The parliamentary vote hinged on 34 swing constituencies in Masvingo and Manicaland provinces, where Zanu PF sought to recoup 2008 losses.
Repeated calls from all parties to avert a repeat of the 2008 violence tempered intimidation tactics, but as campaigning intensified, incidents increased, raising fears for what could happen, especially if the presidential contest again goes to a run-off. If the MDCs feel cheated, they will depend on dispute resolution mechanisms that are untested or have a history of partisanship.
Much resembled 2008, including an atmosphere of intolerance and restricted access, state media bias and lack of confidence in institutions. There are some significant differences: more voter access to information, especially through the internet, social media, mobile phones and satellite news. Zanu PF no longer has an increasingly frustrated region’s unquestioning loyalty. Sadc publicly acknowledges need for reforms, but expectations it would or could ensure a genuine vote were severely compromised, raising questions about its post-July 31 role.
Much of the international community is expected to take its cue from the AU and, especially, Sadc, but there are concerns the latter may repeat its 2011 performance in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), when it accepted an election replete with violations of its own guidelines. Mugabe’s threat in his July 5 speech that launched his campaign to leave Sadc, “if it makes silly decisions”, and hardliner posturing that the organisation and its most powerful member, South Africa, want regime change, highlighted Zanu PF’s continued reliance on brinkmanship.
Though both were aware Zimbabwe was not ready for elections, Sadc and the AU deployed observers, after weakly urging postponement, but thus far not to the swing constituencies or to many rural areas, though the major threat to security and proper tabulation of results comes from the very security forces legally bound to protect the elections. Especially if the presidential contest goes to a run-off, as in 2008, they should seek to include well-trained Sadc police and military (whether active duty or retired) in their observer delegations specifically to monitor the conduct of the Zimbabwe military and police.
Pre-election statements by Sadc and the AU suggested an atmosphere of calm, but if they were to safeguard the region from a new crisis and help Zimbabwe move toward an adjustment of political power that fairly and efficiently reflects the genuine strengths of the two main camps, they needed to be prepared to react promptly and strongly to an unfair vote, an escalation of violence or results rejected by bitterly divided camps.
Unprepared for vote.
The July 31 elections were held despite the failure of six years of Sadc-facilitated negotiations to achieve significant reforms, including security sector re-alignment, fair media access and changes to laws inhibiting freedom of association and expression.
All parties, but disproportionately Zanu PF, have a share of the blame for that failure.
The latter argued that the March 2013 constitution addresses these issues, but any chance for that document to make a practical difference was scuppered by the imposition of a date for the vote so early that implementing the measures could not be ready in time.
The May 31 decision of the Concourt (an expanded version of the Supreme Court) for a July date renewed concerns about Zanu PF’s continued influence over important elements of the judiciary.
The MDC parties expressed surprise at the ruling, which essentially ended debate on whether the elections could or should be pushed back to September or October. Sadc endorsed South African President Jacob Zuma’s call for more reform before elections and recommended that the political parties ask the court for “more time beyond 31 July 2013 deadline for holding the harmonised elections”. While the MDCs were pleased by the statement, it in effect repeated an approach — asking the opposing camps in Zimbabwe to reach a mutual accommodation — that has failed repeatedly.
Zanu PF rejected a joint submission, instead submitting a weak unilateral brief to the court, which upheld its initial decision without providing reasons.
In the meantime, a constitutionally-mandated 30-day intensive voter registration process began under the Registrar-General (RG) Tobaiwa Mudede, who has been accused of being close to Zanu PF.
The voters’ roll has been central in the manipulation of previous elections and the new electoral act is meant to provide unprecedented oversight and access.
The RG’s initiative in May to address the old problems failed miserably — deliberately so, critics said — and Zec described the roll as “shambolic”.
The 30-day process was hampered by resource restrictions, showed bias against registration in cities — especially Harare — and ended on July 10 amid protests. Civil society organisations assert that as many as two million youths have not been registered; there are more registered voters than adults in almost a third of the 210 constituencies; since 2008 the number of registered urban (traditionally MDC) voters has decreased, while registrations in rural resettlement areas (traditionally Zanu PF) have increased; and the roll has almost 900 000 duplicate entries.
There was no time to fix this situation before July 31. The registration problems highlighted the need for effective observation at every stage of the electoral process and for a functioning and transparent results-reporting infrastructure that enables field-based and complementary national results tabulation.
Zec uncovered serious results tabulation flaws during the constitutional referendum process earlier in the year and the July elections were considerably more complicated. Tabulation difficulties that hampered efficient release of results would create uncertainty and heighten tensions.
Over US$58 million short of the funding it needed, the Zec’s preparations for elections was acutely compromised.
This was apparent in the fiasco over early voting by members of the security forces, including unresolved questions about the authentication of tens of thousands of police reservists whose applications Zec accepted.
Zec insisted it could deliver if it received funds, but the damage had been done: a compromised voters’ roll, chaotic special voting, inadequate voter education, absence days before the vote of a transparent results-management system, delayed postal voting and failure to provide for voting by prisoners. Late and inadequate funding also undermined its capacity to build confidence in the integrity of electoral institutions and processes.
On July 23, Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa said money had been obtained locally, but gave no details.
Zec’s new chairperson, Justice Rita Makarau, introduced a culture of openness, appeared committed to improving operational transparency, but was navigating a minefield and could not be expected to rehabilitate the commission single-handedly after its disastrous 2008 performance.
Trust in Zec was eroded since campaigning began, with MDC-T suggesting security elements “have clearly taken over the running of these elections”, and Zanu PF accusing MDC-T of working with Zec elements to sabotage the process. The constitution and legislation introduced a new electoral dispute resolution infrastructure that is untested, lacks capacity and is undermined by mistrust based on prior experience.
The Concourt is responsible for challenges to the presidential election results. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), responsible with the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) for investigating human rights violations, lacks staff and infrastructure. Multi-party liaison committees, responsible for dealing with political violence and electoral disputes had not begun work and had acute resource limitations.
The Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee (Jomic), established by the Global Political Agreement (GPA) that ended the 2008 electoral crisis, played this role previously, but Zanu PF frustrated efforts to reconfigure it for the 2013 elections. Allegations of media malpractice must be dealt with by the Media Council of Zimbabwe and Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, both accused of Zanu PF partisanship.
Another violent election?
The unprecedented violence and intimidation before the 2008 presidential run-off has haunted the July 31 vote. The sporadic, relatively low levels of localised violence — similar to the run-ups to earlier elections — was presented as an unfortunate “natural” consequence of Zimbabwe politics.
Emerging narratives, including from the state media, suggest Zanu PF and MDC-T were equally responsible. However, they ignore the involvement of state actors in both formal and informal repression, as well as Zanu PF’s extensive use of proxies. While there have been fewer incidents, the pattern is remarkably similar to 2008.
Because of systemic impunity, perpetrators continue to live within the communities they victimised. This has enabled Zanu PF to reap what MDC-T secretary-general Tendai Biti has described as “the harvest of fear”. The structures employed in the 2008 violence are largely in place and can easily be reactivated.
Military deployments across the country were a further reminder of where hard power lay, and Mugabe ignored Sadc’s request to publicly draw security force commanders’ attention to Section 208 of the constitution, prohibiting political partisanship. The police are a broke, largely corrupt force in which most people have little faith. Violence and resulting tensions were increasing as election day approached.
Most observers anticipated the violence would be kept within bounds during the first round of voting, but prospects for serious bloodshed are real if a second round is needed to decide the presidency and control of the legislature. As in 2008, it would be orchestrated by parallel networks within the security services working outside regular command chains and in conjunction with surrogates.
The situation is complicated by divisions within Zanu PF, fragmentation of its associated youth, militia and veteran forces, and its reported growing links with criminal groups, such as the Chipangano gang in Mbare, Harare. There was no visible deterrent to violence; most incidents were not even reported to the police.
Haven’t we been here before?
Zimbabwe has trodden a similar path before. The voting cancelled the GPA “ceasefire” and electioneering has provided cover for powerful forces who sought to reconfigure the political landscape. For Zanu PF, as Mugabe stated in the speech that launched his campaign in early July, this is a “do-or-die” contest in defence of its revolution.
The contest is also as much about younger Zanu PF leaders jockeying to succeed the old president as it is about Mugabe himself. This played out in the run-up to a chaotic primary process in which supporters of Defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa gained an advantage over those of the more moderate Vice-President Joice Mujuru.
Mnangagwa delivered Mugabe’s 2008 re-election and wants the top job. He has little national appeal, but could benefit from the new constitutional succession mechanism that enables the victorious party to choose a successor if the incumbent resigns, dies or becomes incapacitated in office.
If Zanu PF loses these elections, it is unlikely to simply yield power. Incumbency, the support of the security forces, a partisan judiciary and a critical mass of bureaucrats would most likely frustrate any smooth transfer. Few believe it would accept a role as the “loyal” opposition or doubt that, as in 2008, it would instead adopt high-risk tactics to retain its pre-eminence.
Though lacking a firm empirical basis, many observers believe Mugabe will win the presidential vote. Tsvangirai, as in 2008 when he led the first round before withdrawing in the face of extensive violence, is a serious challenger, but whether his support translates to votes and votes to victory remains to be seen. Mistrust has again prevented the MDC parties from forging a united front; both have instead brokered alliances with minor (former Zanu PF) political players. They may well split the vote again, as in 2008, leading to a potentially dangerous run-off. Analysts widely anticipate that a split MDC vote would produce a hung parliament, though one in which the two formations might have potentially decisive leverage on legislation.
Electoral observers’ credibility
Faced with multiple electoral deficiencies and the risks of serious new violence inherent in them, it is vital that Sadc and the AU — the GPA co-guarantors — not fall back on a purely technical assessment of July 31. Their own election guidelines empower them to take a wide-angle perspective, including standing up for the concerns on such matters as security and media fairness that Sadc identified at its June summit.
Sadc’s point role as facilitator and co-guarantor of the GPA gives it unique insights into the operational environment. The input of its facilitation team and members in Jomic in particular would assist the observation teams in addressing all aspects of the elections.
There is growing concern, however, that both organisations may opt for a narrow evaluation of the elections. Their recent statements have soft-peddled the flaws and made no mention of the reforms Sadc said in June were still required. Their election roadmap has been abandoned and responsibility to deliver a credible election handed back to Zimbabwe’s political leadership.
Faced with an unbalanced electoral playing field and deep disagreements between the primary players, they have limited options.
Western observers have not been allowed, and the European Union (EU) declared it will follow Sadc’s lead in responding to the elections. It has limited leverage of its own, as Western moves to re-engage and promote normalisation of relations were not reciprocated by Zanu PF, which remains insistent on unconditional removal of sanctions.
The EU and others would suffer their own loss of credibility and prestige were they to accept endorsement by the African bodies of a clearly problematic poll. Sadc has 400 observers, the first of whom arrived in mid-July. The AU has 60 short-term observers in place, complementing a smaller team of longer-term observers mandated to make a detailed assessment of conditions.
While it may be tempting for the two organisations to take the low road, both internal and international scrutiny is far more intense in Zimbabwe than it was in the Congo, where serious irregularities were more easily overlooked. Likewise, there is much more information about conditions on the ground in Zimbabwe than there was in 2008.
Averting a slide into brutality and repression or open conflict is essential if Sadc is to fulfil its regional responsibilities. Though characteristically the immediate pre-election period did not witness extensive violence, the prospect of violent push back, particularly from frustrated youths, is increasing, especially if the democratic process fails to deliver. More likely, as in 2008, if the vote goes against them, is violence from hardline Zanu PF elements and “securocrats”, who stand to lose most from a change in political fortunes.
Sadc gave Zanu PF the benefit of the doubt in 2008 and has not developed visible deterrence to such tactics in 2013. Sanctions, suspension of membership or even expulsion are largely untested options. Threats to employ them have little credibility, given tepid responses to past violence and intimidation. It is unclear whether, how and to what extent member states have supported the Sadc facilitation team’s push for reforms by exerting bilateral pressure via incentives and warnings.
The least likely outcome is an uncontested victory by either MDC-T or Zanu PF.
A number of more likely outcomes include:
Zanu PF wins a deeply flawed election that is accepted by most in the interest of avoiding violence and further economic chaos;
Zanu PF wins a deeply flawed election that is accepted by Sadc/AU observers, but not by MDC formations and civil society, leading to further political impasse and economic deterioration; Zanu PF “wins” a clearly rigged election; the courts give no remedy, leading to large protests, repression, political isolation and economic deterioration; or MDC-T wins at least in the first round, provoking a backlash by hardliners/securocrats to prevent a transfer of power.
Other scenarios are also possible, but whatever ultimately transpires, it will become more precarious if the presidential contest again goes to a second round. Most projected outcomes suggest a strongly disputed result. In that event, resolution mechanisms may not provide a legal remedy, and African facilitation may be required to either rerun elections after several months of careful preparation or, if that is not possible, secure a political solution involving a negotiated reconfiguration of power sharing.
If Sadc and the AU take the low road with respect to the July 31 vote that is clearly deeply flawed — regardless of which political camp appears to “win”, though realistically the Zanu PF side is more likely to be able to employ and benefit from gross manipulation — their ability to maintain regional stability as well as to promote democratisation and good governance will be undermined. Instead, they should be prepared to declare the results illegitimate and press for the elections to be run again after a minimum of three months is used to ensure:
adequate funding to resource and prepare fair elections; voter education to explain the new election system to all citizens;
operationalisation of a viable dispute resolution infrastructure; extended opportunity for additional voter registration and subsequent publication of the voters’ roll to allow for inspection and audit; opening of access to the state media for all political players; co-operation between Sadc facilitators and Jomic to monitor political violence and intimidation and assess respect for electoral laws and institutions; and robust nation-wide monitoring by Sadc and the AU to help avoid a disputed outcome.
In this interim period, Sadc and the AU should continue to recognise the current GPA power-sharing administration as the legitimate government. If new elections are held in September 2013 (the constitutional deadline in view of the end-of June dissolution of the parliament), or the parties prefer to avoid elections for the time being, either an extension of the current arrangement or negotiation of a reconfigured power-sharing deal — described by some as “GPA 2” — would be required. If the government refuses, Sadc and the AU should consider such options as non-recognition, suspension of membership and targeted sanctions to enforce compliance.
Sadc and the AU will also need to be strong and pro-active — both threatening and using a similarly wide-range of diplomatic tools and pressing for more extensive presence of their personnel in specially vulnerable areas, including observers competent to keep watch on the security services — if a surge in violence begins or appears imminent either in immediate consequence of the July 31 balloting or, as in 2008, in process toward a presidential run-off.
Five years on from the violence and chaos that the fundamentally flawed 2008 elections led to, Zimbabwe’s main political actors — Zanu PF and the MDC parties — each retain substantial national support and a claim to exercise primary responsibility for the nation’s future.
However, they have made little, if any genuine progress, towards the mutual trust or at least tolerance that might enable them to agree on a solution to their political deadlock. The necessary reforms of law, the media and especially the security sector that should precede recourse to the ballot box to decide their differences have long been known, but they either are not in place, exist only on paper or are insufficiently implemented.
In short, the polarisation, the skewed balance of power and the apparent determination of those with power not to give it up — mean that the elections are unlikely to prove a satisfactory mechanism for determining who holds office. Depending on the specific nature of shortcomings at the polls or with regard to the results and their domestic acceptance, Sadc and AU diplomatic intervention will almost certainly be required.
Their facilitation of reworked power sharing in some guise and proportion, with due account taken of the GPA’s flaws, may also become an unavoidable complement.
All that places a heavy burden on the two African inter-governmental organisations that are the only outside entities with sufficient standing, self-interest and onground presence to have a chance of managing the fragile and potentially explosive situation. They felt unable to press for a delay after the Concourt upheld the date. They badly want both to uphold basic democratic and rule of law standards and to welcome Zimbabwe back into their fold. It is likely, however, that these elections will be so deeply flawed or its results so sharply contested as to make those goals incompatible by ushering in an exacerbated crisis rather than the beginning of political stability.
In either event, the region, the continent and others like the EU that have indicated they will follow an African lead, will have to make difficult choices. No policy would be free of costs, but a renewed effort to uphold basic standards — by candour, public and private diplomacy and perhaps even further sanctions — would stand the best chance eventually to cure Zimbabwe’s dangerous fevers.
This report was prepared by the International Crisis Group just before the July 31 general elections.