Zimbabwe’s Election: Apocalypse or Rebirth?

Robert Mugabe's options in Zimbabwe are narrowing by the day, and it is surely time to accept the facts on the ground and move towards a negotiated settlement with the MDC.



By Knox Chitiyo

On Saturday, 29 March 2008, approximately 3 million Zimbabweans voted in the first ‘harmonised’ (joint council, parliamentary and presidential) elections in the nation’s history. Although there had been widespread fears of violence in the run-up to the vote, there was relatively little pre–electoral violence, and polling day itself passed with few incidents of violence or voter intimidation. Ironically, it was Robert Mugabe himself – a man not renowned for sparing the rod – who was largely responsible for ensuring that voting was conducted with professionalism. In December 2007, amidst reports of widespread intra-ZANU clashes between supporters of rival Party candidates, Mugabe issued a plea for calm and non–violence during the elections. The police and army were certainly a visible presence on polling day, but the much feared militia groups – the War Veterans and ‘Green Bombers’ – who have terrorised the electorate in post 2000 elections – were absent.

Mugabe had also been admonished by his regional allies within the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to create the space in which a free and fair election could be held; any repeat of the violent elections which had characterised post-2000 Zimbabwe would almost certainly end any chance of re-engagement with the international community. So far so good; but the success of polling day looks increasingly like the calm before the storm. The delay in announcing the official results, and the ominous silence concerning the results of the presidential vote, have turned Zimbabwe into a wasp factory, abuzz with rumours of state vote-rigging, plans for a military crackdown; or plans for President Mugabe to step down

The numbers game

There is a long-standing joke – all the more poignant for being true – that every Zimbabwean is a millionaire. Our economy has become so parlous, and the currency so worthless, that even the basic items, such as a loaf of bread, cost millions of Zimbabwe dollars. That loaf of bread would cost, on average, Z$10m, and a Coke would cost $5m; the minimum wage is Z$50m  and many Zimbabweans earn much less than that. The need to survive, Zimbabweans’ natural resiliency in times of extraordinary hardship (a trait developed by decades of internal conflict) and extraordinary entrepreneurial skills (as dictated by circumstance) – means that most Zimbabweans nowadays have a good head for numbers, and this makes it almost impossible for the voting results to be rigged in a  ‘credible’ and believable way. From 2000 to 2007, the Registrar-General’s Office had been the only source of information on election results. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and many others have long contended that the results of every national election since 2000 have been rigged; but without an alternative site of numerical comparison, they have always struggled to substantiate these claims. Despite all the accusations of foul-play, the state’s monopoly on vote-counting and the electoral system as a whole have been a crucial factor in ZANU-PF’s claim of electoral legitimacy.

For 2008, the electoral numbers game has changed; first, the management of the elections was given to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, a body which was more professional and less overtly politicised than its predecessor. Second, the monopoly on vote counting has ended and, unexpectedly, the vote-counting system has been democratised. The opposition MDC established its own vote-counters, as did the Zimbabwe Electoral Supervisory Network (ZESN) and the SADC and Pan-African Parliament observer groups. Most importantly, the initial election results were placed on the walls outside the polling booths, for all to read. The popular vote counting, based on simply reading the results outside the booths, indicated that the MDC had a substantial lead at all levels of the vote, including the presidential. The official results which have been released are thus suspicious for two reasons; first, the official numbers do not tally with the numbers and percentages which the public has already seen outside the booths. Second,there has been an obvious ‘harmonisation’ of the numbers, with a dubious numerical parity being reinforced with every announcement of the results.


For both Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, this election is make or break. For Mugabe, a comprehensive defeat would mean the end of his presidency. He would still remain as Head of ZANU-PF, but he would probably lose even that standing at a subsequent ZANU-PF Congress. For Morgan Tsvangirai, the stakes are also high; after nearly a decade as leader of the opposition, time is clearly running out for him to deliver on his promises of victory, and failure this time around will probably cost him the leadership of the MDC. In addition, Zimbabwe’s post-2000 bipolar political landscape of the MDC vs. ZANU-PF is fragmenting as a new generation of voices make themselves heard. Mugabe has always taken a Clausewitzian approach to politics, seeing it as war by other means, and always seeking to strike a decisive blow against his opponents; this election was no exception

Mugabe and ZANU-PF’s strategy in 2008 was based on various fundamentals; first, continue his emotive appeal to memory by representing himself as the ‘people’s champion’ – the man who liberated Zimbabweans from white settler minority rule; second, remind voters that he had delivered on promises of land redistribution; third, continue with the anti-Western ideology and rhetoric; fourth, vote-catching programmes such as the agricultural mechanisation programme in which masses of farm equipment was given away at ZANU-PF rallies. There were also promises to increase civil servants’ salaries; the Nationalisation programme in which Zimbabweans were to be majority shareholders in any major foreign enterprise in the country, also had some appeal. Most importantly, Mugabe secured the security sector with a mixture of salary increments and an appeal to pragmatic nostalgia, based on memory of the liberation era. Last, but not least, the lack of recourse to violence was an important tactic to put the opposition, which had been expecting violence, off-balance – and gain a modicum of legitimacy. All this was part of the pre-electoral campaign. The vote-counting and announcement of results, and the post-electoral situation, is now essentially a military operation, as with previous elections.

The MDC, for its part has run a well organised electoral campaign, and its tactic of independent vote counting, and encouraging other groups to do their own counting, is important. Less impressive, was the tactic of pre-empting the official presidential result. This condemned the MDC to a war of nerves with ZANU–PF, and the state has won this battle every time. This time, however, time is on the MDC’S side; although they have claimed victory overall, they have learned from previous mistakes. In 2002 Tsvangirai pre-empted the official result by announcing that he had won the presidential elections, and preparing to move into State House. The state bided its time, and when they announced a victory for Mugabe, Tsvangirai, in the absence of independently verifiable poll statistics, was left without a counter-strategy. This time Tsvangirai knows that the plethora of independently verified election results works in his favour.

Tactical blunders

ZANU–PF has made two errors in this election; first, they misjudged the strength of support for the opposition, and the level of popular dissatisfaction for President Mugabe. A year ago, the opposition had been literally battered into submission by the state; riven by internal disputes; politically outmanoeuvred by Mugabe and marginalised by regional recognition for Mugabe; the MDC seemed to be imploding. The state also believed that the entry of Simba Makoni into the contest would help to neutralise the MDC by splitting the opposition vote. This has not happened; Makoni received approximately 10 per cent of the vote but he has not significantly dented the levels of support for either of the big two.

The second error was in replacing the heavily politicised Registrar’s Office which had previously run elections, with the civilianised, professional and relatively apolitical Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). The ZEC pinned the voting results to the polling booths on Sunday, thus allowing Zimbabwe’s citizens to do their own vote-counting. This democratisation of the vote counting process has made it practically impossible for the state to get away with the successful vote-rigging charades of previous years, since there are independent statistical tallies to counter the official result.
For its part, the MDC may also have blundered by pre-empting the result of the presidential poll. This is certain to infuriate the party and security sector hardliners who, will point to this as evidence of an MDC ‘civilian coup’ and it will strengthen their insistence that, at the very least they can buy time with a second round run-off. It will also weaken the bargaining power of the ‘moderates’ who will be urging Mugabe to step down.  

Talks within talks

It is assumed that the delay in announcing the results was to give the state time to falsify the results. This is only partly true; I would contend that the real reason for the delay is because of the divisions within ZANU-PF itself, to decide on the next step. Following the poll, there have been daily conclaves within the Party and the Joint Operational Command (JOC) to decide what to do. Within the Party, and within and between the security sectors, there will be divisions between hardliners who insist on announcing a ‘points win’ for Mugabe which necessitates a run-off; and moderates, who want to acknowledge a victory for Tsvangirai and would urge Mugabe to step down.
Despite the denials from both parties, there are talks between the MDC and ZANU-PF on ending the crisis. Tsvangirai looked and sounded very presidential at his press conference on Tuesday, and on Wednesday the MDC pre-empted the official result by announcing that it had won the vote, and stating the margin of victory. Although this shows the level of confidence in the MDC that they will soon be the next government, it is also a risky strategy. The state views such pre-emption as a civilian coup – and it could well harden Mugabe’s natural inclination to fight to the bitter end.

ZANU-PF is also talking to its leader; ultimately, Zimbabwe’s destiny depends on Robert Mugabe’s decision. His instinct will be to fight on, and go for a run-off, and the hardliners will be urging him to do this. However, Mugabe’s history does reveal instances of moderation; in 1979, he was persuaded to attend the Lancaster House Conference, and to accept the agreement to hold multiparty elections in 1980, even though he preferred to wage a ‘war to the finish’ against Rhodesian forces. In 1980, his policy of reconciliation and refusal to nationalise industry and agriculture was an act of great statesmanship and vision; it surprised those who had seen him as a hard-line Marxist. So, it is not impossible that Mugabe could be persuaded to step down. Much will depend on how the options are presented to him, and the culture of his inner circle. If he can be persuaded that exiting the presidency would be a great act of statesmanship that would save the nation, and that he would enjoy an unfettered retirement in Zimbabwe, then it is possible that he may concede. If however, he feels that he would lose face and risk a troubled retirement, then he will fight.

What next for Zimbabwe?

There is strong evidence to suggest that the MDC did in fact win all the elections, but there are doubts about all the figures presented so far. While there is no doubt that the ZEC has ‘massaged’ the parliamentary statistics and that the MDC has won the parliamentary vote, the MDC claims of  just  over 50 per cent for the presidential vote looks oddly convenient - the independent ZESN has stated that Tsvangirai has received less than this, and that a run-off is needed. Following the vote on the 29 March, the election process has been militarised and securitised, with the security sector chiefs meeting as the Joint Operations Command (JOC) in conclave to decide on options.
The state’s options are narrowing. The first option ,and one which President Mugabe reportedly had to be dissuaded from, was to immediately counter Tsvangirai’ s claim of victory, by declaring himself as the outright victor, two days after the result. This option was thought to be unfeasible as it could lead to immediate popular revolts and a possible Kenya scenario.

The second option is for an announcement that Mugabe has won a ’points decision’ with less than 50 per cent of the vote, and go into a run-off. This option would buy time for the state to retool the electoral and military machinery for ‘round two’, although it is almost certain that Mugabe would lose a run-off.

The third option is to announce a Tsvangirai victory, either as an outright win, or on points, and prepare the way for a hand over to the MDC. There are strong rumours that the South African government is brokering a deal between the security sector, the state, and the opposition, which will pave the way for Mugabe to step down. Although the next 48 hours will tell if this report is true, it reflects on the intense, behind the scenes discussions between the Party and security sector ‘hardliners’ and ‘moderates’. Both the opposition and the state hold each other in thrall; the state can use force to nullify the election, but the crumbling economy and lack of international recognition for Harare, plays into the opposition’s hands. The only solution is for a negotiated transition of power, and this is what is likely to happen. The real question is whether this transition will happen immediately or whether it will occur later in the year, as the economy finally disintegrates.

The fourth option is for the security sector heads to reach an accord with Mugabe and the opposition which would pave the way for Mugabe to stand down, and for a multiparty government which includes all the stakeholders to be established. Whether the security sector heads would allow Tsvangirai to head this government, or whether they would insist on a transitional appointee, remains a moot point. The reality is that the last two options are the least violent options, and the only ones which could begin to re-establish Zimbabwe in the community of nations.

Seven days which will shake the world?

This is likely to be a most momentous week for Zimbabwe – and Africa. Should Mugabe finally concede power, an era in Zimbabwe will have come to a close, and with it will come a resurgence in the power as the popular vote in Africa, a trend initiated by the Kenyan election of December 2007. Failure to achieve a negotiated settlement now could condemn Zimbabwe to a long and bloody apocalypse. It is surely time for sanity to prevail.  

Knox Chitiyo
Head, Africa Programme

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