Zimbabwe’s Underhanded Autocrat

How Mugabe Manipulated the Vote

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe addresses an election rally of his ZANU-PF party in Marondera, about 43 miles east of Harare July 15, 2013. Philimon Bulawayo/Courtesy Reuters

If Robert Mugabe has his way, the results of Zimbabwe’s July 31, 2013, presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections will have been determined before a single ballot is cast. The wily 89-year-old autocratic president, in power for 33 years, has put in place a system of security, legal, fiscal, and administrative measures aimed at again returning his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) to national office. The credibility of any election that yields such an outcome, however, will be suspect.

The immediate point of reference -- and the precedent to be avoided -- is Zimbabwe’s disputed June 27, 2008, presidential election, when the country’s powerful security apparatus and captive electoral commission secured Mugabe’s path back to the presidency by overturning a first round victory by Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The illegitimacy of that hollow victory was evident even to ZANU-PF’s allies in the southern Africa region, who brokered a power-sharing deal in 2009 to give Tsvangirai the post of prime minister. But the resultant coalition government was far from inclusive, since the president retained control of all instruments of hard power, including the army, the police, and the courts. Top ZANU-PF and military officials supplemented their grip on formal state authority with windfall revenues seized from Zimbabwe’s vast diamond fields.

By mid-2010, both ZANU-PF and the MDC concluded that Zimbabwe’s long political crisis could be resolved only by a return to elections. Thus began an unofficial electoral campaign that stretched over three years; the parties could never agree on the rules for a fair contest, let alone a date for voting. The process was further sidetracked by struggles over a new constitution, which led to a compromised document -- it promised new civil rights but left executive power largely intact -- that the electorate welcomed in a March 2013 referendum. The ZANU-PF made the most of the extended campaign by organizing its grass-roots constituency, mainly in the countryside. Meanwhile, the MDC party

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