How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 organization, always stronger in urban than rural areas, was slow to recover from the state-sponsored electoral violence of 2008, when 200 of its members were killed.
Conditions on the ground ahead of the polls this year differ in important ways from 2008. The previous contest played out against a backdrop of hyperinflation, food shortages, widespread cholera, collapsed public services, and overt political violence. Today, Zimbabwe’s economy has steadied, the worthless Zimbabwe dollar has been replaced (several foreign currencies count as legal tender), the press is plural, schools and clinics have reopened, and there are goods on the shelves. Most important, Mugabe and ZANU-PF seem to recognize that an open replay of 2008’s electoral brutality will only undermine the validity of their rule. Therefore, they now rhetorically proclaim peace while reaping the harvest of fear that they planted during earlier periods of intimidation. They also appear to have invested heavily in measures to manipulate the electoral machinery.
Take the contested issue of the election date. The power-sharing agreement and a road map to elections, both supervised by the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), required that the president consult the prime minister on the date of any election. Yet Mugabe repeatedly insisted on an early poll and threatened to set the date unilaterally, as he had done in 2008. He welcomed a late May 2013 decision by Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court (in a case that may have been engineered by ZANU-PF) that elections must be held no later than July 31. The president then short-circuited a parliamentary effort to debate a new electoral law (and thereby potentially delay the elections) by issuing a presidential decree confirming the July date. The accelerated schedule handed Mugabe what he wanted. Given his advancing age and poor health, the president apparently wanted to get the vote over with, and catch the MDC off guard. Another bonus: It left no time to properly fulfill constitutional provisions for voter registration, nomination of candidates, and inspection of the voters’ roll. Early elections also allowed ZANU-PF to avoid agreed-upon reforms to level the competitive playing field.
The existing rules of the political game put opponents of the old regime at a steep disadvantage. For example, MDC legislators never succeeded in repealing two draconian laws passed by the ZANU-PF–dominated parliament in 2002: the Public Order and Security Act, which empowers the police to block political gatherings, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which limits the rights of journalists. The authorities still routinely disallow opposition political rallies and continue to castigate Tsvangirai over the airwaves. The state’s effort to contain opposition activity is accompanied by an ongoing crackdown on civil society, including the arrest and trial of the country’s top human rights defender, the lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa.
At the same time, ordinary citizens are forced to attend ZANU-PF rallies in Harare and other cities and undergo all-night indoctrination sessions known as pungwes in the countryside. Zimbabwe’s security chiefs have publicly ruled out the prospect of security sector reform and indicated that they would refuse to accept Tsvangirai as president.
Making things worse, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, which is critical for a quality vote, is neither neutral nor fully prepared for elections. Even if some commissioners, including a new chair, try to uphold professional standards, the staff, which contains military and intelligence personnel, has not changed since 2008. Nor is the electoral commission able to supervise the process of voter registration, which remains firmly in the clutch of Tobaiwa Mudede, a seasoned ZANU-PF loyalist at the head of the Registrar General’s Office (RGO). Moreover, the electoral commission is hamstrung by a shortage of resources: Just ten days before the election, the cash-strapped government had released less than a quarter of the total estimated election budget to the electoral commission.
The manipulation of the election is evident in the voters’ roll. A last-minute voter registration exercise failed to extend voting rights to Zimbabweans in the international diaspora, or fully exorcise the names of ghost voters. And it yielded few new registrants. Although traditional leaders herded villagers into registration centers in the ruling party’s rural strongholds, would-be voters in the opposition-leaning cities were blocked by long queues. An audit by the nongovernmental organization Research and Advocacy Unit revealed that fewer than one out of five young people were able to register; yet in almost a third of the gerrymandered voting districts, the number of registered voters exceeded the official population count. Disarray in electoral administration came home to roost during early voting, when almost half of all election and security officials were unable to cast a ballot, forcing the electoral commission to issue a public apology. Meanwhile, reformers continue to call on the RGO to publish the voters’ roll, as the constitution requires, and to condemn the courts for consistently denying the MDC’s appeals to extend the times available for early and regular voting.
Political parties in Zimbabwe win elections in two ways: by mobilizing their own supporters and suppressing the opposition vote. With its origins as an armed guerrilla insurgency, ZANU-PF has always used both approaches, combining force and patronage to build a political base of “no-go” zones in the country’s rural northeast where the MDC cannot campaign. Absent deep roots in either the labor movement or business community, ZANU-PF long ago lost the allegiance of most urban voters. For its part, however, the MDC, with its undisciplined performance in the coalition government, failed to consolidate its early support among these same groups. It also neglected the need to rebuild its own organization and consummate a grand coalition with minor opposition parties.
Public opinion polls suggest recent declines in MDC popularity and confirm that demographic distributions in a predominantly rural country tend to work in ZANU-PF’s favor. With the help of biased electoral institutions, Mugabe appears to have an edge over Tsvangirai and may even win the presidency in the first round. ZANU-PF is also determined to regain working majorities in the parliament and on local government councils that were lost to the opposition in 2008. But because political authority in Zimbabwe is concentrated in the executive branch, the Central Intelligence Organization -- operating through an opaque national command center for tabulating votes -- will focus any manipulation of the count on the crucial presidential contest. Pressured by militants to never surrender power, Mugabe also knows that, even if he loses, he can still prevent a democratic transition by activating the coercive forces that his party has emplaced around the country.
Despite the dismal outlook of Western countries standing by as Mubabe steals another election, the United States and others have very little leverage. Having isolated Harare, Western ambassadors are held at arm’s length by the government’s hard-liners. Under direction from above, the electoral commission has already declined to invite international election observers, including the Carter Center. And most of all, Western solidarity has begun to crumble as the European Union lifts sanctions on top ZANU-PF officials and reengages in direct aid relations.
Citing the need for African solutions to African problems, the West now lines up behind the SADC as the regional guarantor of Zimbabwe’s political future. But the SADC’s track record is spotty, to say the least, sometimes blocking but too often turning a blind eye to Mugabe’s machinations. It is unlikely to condemn a rigged election that appears peaceful. Nor does the SADC have the appetite to step in if, against the odds, the MDC ekes out a victory but the security chiefs once again prevent Tsvangirai from taking power. Amid such bleak scenarios, the United States should reiterate its long-standing policy that normal relations with Zimbabwe depend not only on credible elections but also on the government’s respect for human rights, civilian control of the military, and commitment to other lasting political reforms. Otherwise, another disputed election in Zimbabwe, especially if given a stamp of approval by neighboring countries, will only undercut prospects for better governance in southern Africa and the wider sub-Saharan region.