Zim elections — Trouble again?

With both congratulations and criticisms pouring in, there is much concern over what the disputed elections will mean for Zimbabwe going forward.

Opinion by Ian Scoones

Zimbabwe’s trauma continues. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission has announced a landslide victory for Zanu PF.

Zanu PF reportedly took two-thirds of the parliamentary seats and President-elect Robert Mugabe won 61% of the presidential vote, with outgoing Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai picking up 34%.

MDC-T has called the elections “a sham”, “a farce” and “null and void”. Former Education minister, David Coltart, argued that “Zimbabwe has been subjected to electoral fraud on a massive scale”. Former Finance minister Tendai Biti called it all a “loquacious tragedy”.

Meanwhile, the official observers from the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and the African Union (AU) have called the elections “peaceful, credible and efficient”, “free and peaceful”, and reflecting “the will of the people”, with high turnouts and orderly voting.

Some, including long-term opposition leader Roy Bennett, have called for a rejection of the ballot and the staging of mass resistance. Baba Jukwa, the massively popular Facebook avatar with 351 000 “likes” who claims he is a disaffected Zanu PF insider, has declared war.

Accusations of fraud
We will never know the “true” results of the elections, although as in the last elections, there was probably a rural-urban and regional split, with the votes more balanced overall than any political grouping claims.

Both main parties naturally proclaimed before the poll that they were likely to be certain victors. Results of prior opinion polling were mixed, although pointing towards a rehabilitation of Zanu PF and disillusionment with the MDC parties’ performance in government.

Meanwhile, the MDC-T and the allied NGO groups pointed to the potential for electoral fraud and the cynical manipulation of the vote long before the elections. While, unlike in 2008, there was thankfully minimal violence during the elections period, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn) argued that there were major problems with the process, including:

Voters’ roll discrepancies
Intimidation
Late opening of polling stations
Slow pace of assisting aspiring voters in some urban polling stations
High number of assisted voters recorded in rural areas
Shortage of ballot papers in some wards
First time voters denied the chance to vote as they were not appearing in the voters’ roll and their registration slips had missing ward details.

A joint statement from the NGOs rejected the elections results. The AU observer team also expressed “grave concerns”, while the UK and US called the elections “flawed”. South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma and China, meanwhile, have both congratulated the country for holding successful elections.

The scale and implications of the problems remain unclear. Claims and counter claims are being made. In a small country, rigging the vote by over a million is a lot, especially consistently across presidential, parliamentary and council elections. The turnout was high at around 3,5 million, making it even more challenging. Maybe Zanu PF did win, as many had expected, but perhaps not by as big a margin as declared.

However, suspicions of foul play are running high. Zanu PF is a sophisticated and ruthless operation.

Such suspicions are increased by bizarre rumours about dodgy security companies, Israeli pens in the voting booths where the ink disappears, special ballot papers with watermarks with crosses against Zanu PF already inserted, and a specially imported Chinese solution for removing the pink ink from voters’ fingers. No one really knows what happened; and we probably never will.

The final tallies are being published, but the scale of the Zanu PF win is clear. What is certain is that the disputes over the results will run and run, with legal challenges to follow. If the confusion and uncertainty persists, the tentative recovery that had been nurtured since 2009 may be quickly wiped out if a new government does not move quickly to assure investors, donors and others.

What to make of it all?

The rehabilitation of the image of Zanu PF and Mugabe has been striking. For example, on a flight from Addis Ababa to London, a colleague of mine was handed a copy of the New African magazine, with a special glossy insert feature on Zimbabwe.

It had articles from all the leading presidential candidates, but in the small print you could see that it was produced by the Information ministry. The message was clear: Zimbabwe is back on track, and Mugabe is in charge.

The MDC parties, meanwhile, were floundering. While having some successes in government — notably on the economy (under Biti) and in education (under Coltart) — in many people’s eyes they had been tainted by power, lacking ideas and vision, and reverting to the corrupt practices that they had criticised in opposition.

The election manifestos of the main parties (Zanu PF, MDC-T, MDC and Zapu) were predictable enough, but none really fired people’s interest.

The issue of land was of course ever-present in the electioneering discourse, deployed in particular by Zanu PF to bolster its nationalist and rural credentials. The MDC groupings, even after over a decade, sadly still failed to offer a convincing alternative narrative on land and rural development.

Of course, the elections were not being fought on such policy issues. Those opposed to Zanu PF, however, failed to broker a coalition of opposition, and the vote was often divided, particularly in Matabeleland, but also in some urban centres, including Masvingo.

Coltart of MDC, for example, lost his seat to an MDC-T candidate. Political and personal differences, combined with narrow regionalism and factionalism, provided a perfect opportunity for Zanu PF, despite it also being divided and weak.

Trouble again?
This was Zimbabwe’s first electronic, internet age election. There was hope that these mechanisms — checking voter registration, crowd mapping election violations, posting votes, monitoring election sites and mapping results — would bring greater transparency and accountability.

There was an impressive array of engagement, from the 7 000 “citizen monitors” deployed by Zesn to the websites of Sokwanele, MyVote and Simukai. Twitter and Facebook pages have gone wild, with intensive commentary and debate not least via the Baba Jukwa page.

But, in the end, it didn’t seem to have an impact on the legitimacy and credibility of the process. Too many questions remained unanswered, and confusion still prevails, as the various “independent” observers and monitors contradicted each other, declaring either the elections broadly free and fair or discredited by foul play.

The international media has as a result of all this also been deeply confused.

No one is quite sure what to make of it all. As Andrew Harding of the BBC commented, there is now a battle over the narrative of the elections, not the specific results. Some of the media had decided what the narrative was before elections were held, but there has been some thoughtful commentary too.

The political uncertainty that these elections have delivered means that, sadly once again, the immediate future is in the balance. Whoever individual Zimbabweans voted for, the final overall outcome may not be what anyone wanted — which was peace and stability. As a friend commented on the phone from Gwanda just now: “It’s trouble again.”

Let’s hope that a spirit of accommodation and compromise prevails.
In the next period at least, Zanu PF can organise the Mugabe succession from a position of strength, and the opposition will have to regroup again, probably under new leadership. The political landscape has certainly changed with these elections, but the full implications still remain unclear.

This article was originally published on Zimbabweland. Scoones is a professorial fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, and co-director of the ESRC-Steps Centre, Sussex.

He is an agricultural ecologist by training and has led a number of large, multi-country interdisciplinary projects.