June 25, 2008

Can Elections End Mugabe’s Dictatorship?

Zimbabweans’ experience of elections, especially since 2000 when the MDC first challenged ZANU PF rule, has made them cynical about elections as a mechanism to transfer power. They have learned that ZANU PF will do whatever it takes to win elections. 2007 was rated the worst year in terms of the number of human rights abuses since 2001, most perpetrated by ZANU PF state and paramilitary forces, and aimed at decimating the top and lower level leadership of the opposition in advance of the anticipated 2008 elections.1 Also, there was growing disillusionment with the opposition. The March 29 2008 presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections initially aroused little interest among dejected voters. The MDC had split into two bickering factions in late 2005, the majority faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and the minority faction by Arthur Mutambara (MDC-M). The MDC-T was increasingly bedeviled by youth violence, problems of leadership transparency and accountability, and interest in positions for the material rewards they provided. Its political culture had begun to mimic the organization which it sought to remove.

When Simba Makoni, who had been a ZANU PF politburo member, announced that he would run for the presidency, it injected a refreshing uncertainty about his impact on the elections. For opponents of ZANU PF, Makoni’s candidacy signaled the ruling party’s internal unraveling. There was also a palpable shift in the political environment during the campaign, especially in ZANU PF’s rural strongholds. On brief visits to Chibi in Masvingo province and to the area in Manicaland province where powerful ZANU PF government minister, Didymus Mutasa, and Simba Makoni both own farms, I saw MDC supporters fearlessly wearing MDC-t shirts, moving freely, and organizing and attending rallies.

For the first time since 1980, ZANU PF lost control of the house of assembly. The MDC-T won 99 seats, the MDC-M 10 seats, ZANU PF 97 seats, and an independent one seat. [Three assembly constituencies, where candidates died before the March 29th election, will hold by-elections on June 27.] Despite the inroads made by the opposition into ZANU PF rural strongholds, ZANU PF still secured a majority of seats in four out of ten provinces. Should a new post-electoral unity agreement between MDC-M (which supported Simba Makoni in the presidential election) and MDC-T hold, the MDC factions will control the house of assembly. In the senate elections, the two MDC factions won 30 seats (MDC-T won 24 seats and MDC-M 6 seats), as did ZANU PF. The senate also has 33 reserved seats for chiefs, provincial governors, and presidential appointees, thus guaranteeing ZANU PF control. A caveat: these parliamentary results are not final. Fifty-three ZANU PF candidates and fifty-two MDC candidates have lodged petitions with the Electoral Court, mainly affecting House seats. Under the Electoral Act, the Electoral Court has six months in which to rule on the petitions.

Official presidential election results were finally announced on May 2, more than five weeks after the polling date. Tsvangirai won 47.9% of the votes, Mugabe 43.2%, and Makoni 8.3%. A fourth candidate won the remainder of the vote. Approximately 43% of registered voters participated in the presidential election. Legally, local government election results were declared at ward level within a day or two of polling on March 29. Councils are required to meet as soon as practicable after the declaration of the results to elect mayors and chairpersons. This did not happen, though. Councils apparently waited for the electoral commission to publish the results in the press, which it is required to do under law. The commission finally began to slowly publish the council results in the press days after it had announced the presidential election results.

Prior to the March 29 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, historical precedent suggested (at least to me) that President Mugabe would find a way to “win” the presidential election despite the inauspicious context – economic collapse and a three-way race in which the vote would be split among himself, Simba Makoni (who stood as an independent), and his longstanding rival, Morgan Tsvangirai (head of the MDC-Tsvangirai faction). While opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC faction (MDC-T) continue to claim outright victory (as they have since soon after the polls closed) and engage in diplomatic efforts to ensure that they inherit state power, President Mugabe predictably shows no signs of ending his 28-year reign. ZANU PF has handled the crisis arising from Mugabe’s failure to secure a majority of the popular vote with familiar guile and ruthlessness.

Almost immediately after the election, the media were abuzz with how a ZANU PF envoy had approached Morgan Tsvangirai to discuss forming a Tsvangirai-led government of national unity. Reportedly, Mugabe had indicated he would resign, as long as he was offered immunity from prosecution from crimes against humanity. These talks were allegedly derailed by hawks in the party, the military, and police. Fearful of facing future prosecutions, they apparently urged Mugabe not to capitulate. At the time, Secretary-General Tendai Biti (MDC-T) denied the reports, saying the MDC-T would not negotiate with ZANU PF until the results had been declared. That these negotiations took place was later confirmed by Morgan Tsvangirai and still later by veteran South African journalist Allister Sparks.

One must question whether this ZANU PF overture was ever more than a deliberate attempt to give the ruling elite time to consider its options and perhaps ensure that the MDC-T did not call for street protests to demand the announcement of the results. (There is no evidence that the MDC-T had such a plan, and its critics believe it lost another opportunity to back up its electoral performance with organized mass action.) Mugabe’s alleged readiness to quit is out of character. During his campaign, for instance, he vowed that he would never allow Morgan Tsvangirai to rule Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s verbal threats are seldom gratuitous.

Announcements made on April 3 and 4 indicated that ZANU PF had settled on the run-off scenario: Mugabe would challenge Tsvangirai in a second round ostensibly because neither candidate had secured the necessary 50% + one vote for a first-round victory. To ensure a Mugabe victory, the Joint Operations Command (JOC), reportedly led by Emmerson Munangagwa, himself an aspirant presidential successor to Mugabe, launched a strategy of violence and intimidation, chiefly against rural voters who had supported the opposition in former ZANU PF strongholds. The JOC is composed of the commanders of the army, air force, police, prison, and intelligence services. The military, police, war veterans, and youth militia, aided by ZANU PF supporters and senior ZANU PF officials, are leading the terror campaign. ZANU PF has a history of using state-orchestrated violence to punish those who vote against it. For example, it embarked on violent campaigns against ZAPU after the 1985 election and against urban MDC voters after the 2005 election.

A sad paradox of the effort to bring transparency to elections is that the new legal requirement to post the election results outside the polling stations enabled the ruling party to target those villages or farms or resettlement areas which had voted for the opposition in its Operation Makavhoterapapi (Where did you put your cross?). Victims of violence and arrests also include local election observers and those who administered the elections – the polling officers, MDC electoral agents, and even Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) officials. They are accused of assisting the MDC through fraud, vote-rigging, and other electoral irregularities.

ZANU PF continued to play for more time, not only to prepare for a run-off but also likely to explore other options, such as a government of national unity under President Mugabe. Legally, ZEC did not need to announce the parliamentary election results. Once they had been posted at the polling stations, they were official. Nonetheless, ZEC behaved as if it had the authority to declare the parliamentary results. The ZEC dragged out the announcement of the assembly results, then moved to a similarly drawn out process of announcing senate results. On April 12 the ZEC ordered a recount of the parliamentary, presidential, and local government election votes in 23 constituencies. The recount only began on April 19 and continued for over a week. Whether or not the ZEC intended to reverse ZANU PF’s narrow but historic loss of its majority in the house is unclear; in the end, the recount merely confirmed the parliamentary results announced earlier. Given the weakness of the House, ZANU PF may have decided to accept the loss of control over it rather than further inflame international and regional hostility.

ZANU PF normalized the abnormal. Mugabe’s cabinet, which he dissolved on the eve of the election, continues to serve as if legal. Moreover, at least six cabinet ministers lost their seats in the parliamentary election but remain in office which violates the legal requirement that ministers be elected to parliament. The state media, a mouthpiece of Mugabe and ZANU PF, focused attention away from the undeclared presidential election result, and alleged conspiracies against the nation’s sovereignty involving variously the US, the UK, the MDC, white farmers, critical SADC heads of state, and the UN.

After ZEC had announced the presidential election results on May 2, it initially said the run-off might not be held for up to a year. The commission cited lack of resources (the Reserve Bank governor says the run-off will cost at least US$60 million) and of preparation time. Under the electoral law, the electoral commission must announce the date for the run-off election within twenty-one days of “the election” – the only reasonable interpretation in this case must be that the run-off be held within twenty-one days of the declaration of the election result. However, the Electoral Act empowers the commission to make statutory instruments to extend the twenty-one day period – and indeed to affect virtually any aspect relating to the election – as long as the Minister of Justice approves the statutory instruments. The commission used these powers. On May 16, the commission announced that the run-off would be held on June 27.

On May 10 Morgan Tsvangirai announced that he would participate in the run-off. Over the past few weeks, the MDC and its leader first said that even though Tsvangirai was the president-elect, he would participate in a run-off but only under certain conditions, only to later assert he would not participate in a run-off under any conditions. Tsvangirai’s announcement to contest the run-off, or perhaps the reporting of it, does not entirely remove ambiguity about the MDC’s position. Some accounts say his participation is contingent on certain conditions being met: SADC must send peacekeepers, the election must be held within twenty-one days, international observers must have free access, SADC peacekeepers must be in-country, ZEC must be re-constituted, and the media must be free for local and international journalists. Other reports treat these conditions as an MDC wish-list rather than prerequisites for his participation. One thing is certain: the government, as it quickly responded, will not meet the conditions.

One sympathizes with the opposition’s dilemma, yet again, about whether or not to participate in another election. If Tsvangirai does not contest the election, Mugabe automatically becomes the next president. If he participates in the run-off, his supporters are almost certain to be the victims of ZANU PF’s escalating campaign of terror. Should Tsvangirai, who has been in self-imposed exile for weeks now, return to Zimbabwe as he said he would, he too may face the ruling party’s wrath. Beyond its use of terror tactics, ZANU PF plans to further tilt the playing field in other ways. ZEC and President Mugabe have the power to alter electoral rules that, according to the Minister of Justice, disadvantage ZANU PF vis-à-vis the MDC. And ZANU PF has already made changes to ensure that the state media will be even more pro-Mugabe for the run-off than the first round.

It is easy to see why the MDC would prefer to form a government of national unity rather than participate in a run-off which Mugabe will not allow them to win. Almost immediately after Tsvangirai said on May 10 that he would participate in the run-off, MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti spoke in favor of a government of national unity as a solution to the electoral crisis. The independents – the Makoni faction and Jonathan Moyo, who broke from ZANU PF before the March 2005 house of assembly elections – also prefer the formation of a government of national unity to a run-off. The securocrats and Mugabe might consider a government of national unity, but only on condition that it is headed by Mugabe. Mugabe told President Mbeki on May 9 that he would consider a government of national unity only after the run-off. However, there are reports that Mugabe is interested in holding talks with Tsvangirai about forming a government of national unity rather than holding a run-off. Neither the independents nor the MDC factions will accept a Mugabe-led government of national unity, before or after the run-off. Nor will the MDC accept a government of national unity that its leaders do not dominate. President Mbeki has long promoted a government of national unity under a successor to Mugabe. His preferred candidate for the job was Makoni, whom he expected would win the presidential election. For a government of national unity to be brokered, mediation will be necessary.

Since the disputed presidential elections in 2002, which the MDC believes Tsvangirai won, there has been a cycle of elections followed by attempts to mediate a constitutional settlement between the MDC and ZANU PF so as to pave the way for holding elections that will be considered legitimate. To date, neither elections nor mediation has solved the political crisis. Moreover, after President Mbeki, who has served as SADC’s appointed mediator for the past year, famously declared on April 12 that there was no crisis in Zimbabwe and asked for ZEC to be given more time to declare the presidential results, the MDC-T asked SADC to remove Mbeki. SADC subsequently endorsed Mbeki’s role as mediator but a new mediator will probably have to be found. SADC is apparently exploring appointing a team of mediators, which would include President Mbeki. The pattern of disputed elections and failed mediation looms ahead.

For the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans, the ruling party’s post-election shenanigans and its escalating campaign of violence will be further proof that ballots cannot change a dictatorship. Expect the percentage of registered voters who participate in the run-off – assuming that it is actually held – to plummet well below 43%.

Norma Kriger
Honorary Research Fellow,
School of Economic History and Development Studies,
University of KwaZulu/Natal, Durban, South Africa

1. Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, Political Violence Report: December 2007, 13 February 2008,

Note: This research was partially supported by a grant from Idasa, South Africa. An earlier version of this article appeared on the Royal Africa Society website

Filed under: ACAS Review (Bulletin), Bulletin 79