Zimbabwe’s nationwide elections passed without bloodshed last month, but they were not free from controversy. On July 29, citizens went to the polls to elect a president and parliamentary representatives in the first electoral contest since 2008, and the first since Zimbabwe introduced a new constitution earlier this year. The candidates for the nation’s highest office were the same as they were in 2008, when Morgan Tsvangirai, running on the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) ticket, squared off against the incumbent, Robert Mugabe of the ruling ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Political Front).
Five years ago, Tsvangirai narrowly edged out Mugabe in a three-way race for the presidency. Having failed to win an outright majority with 48 percent to Mugabe’s forty-three, however, Tsvangirai and the MDC were forced into a second round runoff. Before voters returned to the polls, the country witnessed violence and intimidation directed at opposition supporters. Hundreds of Zimbabweans were victimized by state-sponsored human rights abuses and threats against their lives. Hundreds more were rounded up by security forces and thrown into detention. Tsvangirai eventually pulled out of the race in the name of his constituents’ safety, and was ultimately named prime minister in a power sharing agreement brokered by South African President Thabo Mbeki.
The outcome this time around was decidedly different. Mugabe buried Tsvangirai, collecting 61 percent of the vote to the opposition candidate’s 34 percent. The parliamentary contests were equally stark. ZANU-PF took 160 seats in the assembly, while the MDC managed to win only forty-nine. A triumphant Mugabe didn’t mince words in his victory speech. “Those who were hurt by defeat can go hang if they so wish. If they die, even dogs will not sniff at their corpses…We are delivering democracy on a platter. We say take it or leave it, but the people have delivered democracy.”
The results were met with protest at home and abroad. Tsvangirai cried foul, accusing ZANU-PF of stealing the election, declaring it “null and void,” and initiating court proceedings to officially overturn the count. The United States echoed the opposition’s complaint, strongly condemning the results in a statement by Secretary of State John Kerry. Washington “does not believe,” wrote Kerry, “that the results announced today represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague also registered dismay, expressing “grave concerns” about the outcome. So did the European Union. In a public statement, the EU worried “about alleged irregularities and reports of incomplete participation, as well as the identified weaknesses in the electoral process and a lack of transparency.”
Despite these objections, the electoral results were endorsed by regional observers. The two African inter-governmental organizations who sent representatives to monitor voting—the SADC (Southern African Development Community), and the African Union (AU)—declared the elections, however imperfect, to be an expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people. In a statement released shortly after results were announced, the AU announced “that from a historical perspective and in comparison to the 2008 elections, Zimbabwe has made an important transition in the conduct of its elections.” The country’s constitutional court concurred, ruling on August 21 that the elections were free and fair. The next day, Mugabe was officially sworn in to office for his fifth consecutive term in power.
Western media on the whole didn’t offer much help in understanding what was going on. Instead, the New York Times, the BBC, Al-Jazeera and other media outfits offered similar fare, reminding audiences that Mugabe is a dinosaur who has ruled Zimbabwe for more than thirty years; that ZANU-PF won in a landslide, though credible reports had surfaced of widespread electoral fraud; that despite these issues, there was a general sense of relief that the country had avoided bloodshed at the ballot box; and so on. These conventional narratives, however, only tell part of the story.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of what took place in this last round of voting, it is helpful to move beyond the standard analysis that assumes only systemic corruption and an unfair vote. While allegations of irregularities and fraud are credible and cannot be dismissed, it is not clear that electoral malfeasance alone caused the MDC to lose. Other factors are also important, and demand consideration. Two are worth particular attention. First, ZANU-PF enjoys a solid base of support across the country—something often overlooked by western commentators. Second, while the MDC initially enjoyed large-scale support and a strong party structure, its popularity and institutional integrity have been seriously waning since 2008. The MDC’s strength as a political party and ability to contest elections against ZANU-PF—a disciplined opponent that is adept at winning elections through a variety of means, both legal and extra-legal—has declined since it shocked observers by almost winning a parliamentary majority in 2000, thereby establishing itself as the strongest opposition party since independence. Since then, the party has been plagued by in-fighting, especially pronounced since 2005, which led to a factional split the following year. Since then the two MDC parties, each substantially weakened by the schism, have battled one another, as well as ZANU-PF, in local elections. The result is often a split opposition the leaves ZANU-PF victorious, despite its earning fewer votes than the total number of the two MDCs added together.
Indeed, while many commentators pointed to the fact that ZANU-PF won many traditional MDC strongholds on July 29, such as Matabeleland South (where it won all thirteen districts) and Matabeleland North (where it won seven of thirteen districts) as evidence of obvious rigging, Mugabe’s success in many of those districts can actually be explained by the divided opposition. In eight Matabeleland South districts the number of opposition votes, if added together, exceed those won by the ruling party. In Matabeleland North, the same is true in all but two of the districts won by ZANU-PF. If the two MDC factions had joined forces as a unified front, they would have won.
The MDC also faces a popularity problem. Tsvangirai and his party have suffered waning support since both MDC groups joined the unity government in 2009. At issue is the perception that MDC representatives have been participating in the same kind of corruption as ZANU-PF, and that the party’s participation in government has caused them to change the way it operates, as well as its relationship to its base. The MDC developed and based its power on strong ties to labor union activism and local human rights organizations, and was initially able to mobilize support through these pre-existing organizational structures. At the same time, between 2002 and 2008, the party managed to build and strengthen its rural support networks—the secret to ZANU-PF’s striking loss, or failure to overwhelmingly win certain rural districts observers had considered Mugabe strongholds, in 2008.
The violence of the previous electoral cycle took a devastating toll on the MDC. Its rural party structures were decimated and its capacity to mobilize the once robust grassroots network that had previously bolstered party power were severely weakened. Nor has the MDC done itself any favors. Local commentators have noted that the party has been increasingly out of touch with its supporters. Take Manicaland, for example, where Tsvangiari expressed shocked disbelief at losing the majority of provinces. Widespread dissatisfaction with the MDC was felt when party leadership imposed their chosen candidates to contest elections instead of the more locally popular ones.
Two key pre-election polls, conducted by Freedom House and Afrobarometer, also reveal a weakened MDC. When asked who they would vote for if an election were held the next day, 31 percent of respondents in the Freedom House poll said they would vote for ZANU-PF compared to 19 percent for MDC. To be sure, these numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, since a full 40 percent declined to reveal their party preferences. Nevertheless, the poll confirms a significant decrease in support for MDC from the 55 percent reported in 2009, while ZANU-PF’s share increased by 12 percent in the same period. Susan Booysen, author of the Freedom House report, noted the she “heard people saying MDC is just not doing work in the constituencies and is spending too much time in the palace. They’re taking for granted they’re the crown princes. They are not capturing the desire for change. And there is still a desire for change among people.”
In contrast to the declining fortunes of the MDC, ZANU-PF began shoring up unity and discipline within the party well ahead of the elections. The party focused specifically on strengthening local rural party structures and patronage networks, which have always been central to its rural strength. Mugabe made sure that he campaigned heavily in rural areas, where rallies were well-attended and the party embarked on a massive voter registration drive. Not only that, but evidence increasingly suggests that not all of the ruling party’s policies have been the abject disaster commonly portrayed in the west.
ZANU-PF’s land redistribution program, prematurely declared a failure by many commentators, has enjoyed growing attention lately, largely due to its achievements. A number of recent scholarly studies have shown strong evidence that supports government claims that the policy has been a success. That the program produces actual beneficiaries, coupled with a symbolic and ideological resonance of the land issue, which was a central rallying cry during Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, should not be underestimated. It is particularly salient in the rural areas, where 77 percent of Zimbabweans live.
None of this is to deny the seriousness of electoral malfeasance perpetrated in this most recent round of voting, nor the possibility that it adversely affected the results. The New York Times offered a good rundown of the issues plaguing the July elections in its reporting. Among other troubling problems, “The parties were not given a copy of the final voter rolls until the day before the election, and when it did arrive it was on paper, not in a digital format that could easily be analyzed to look for fraud. Many voters, particularly in urban areas where the challengers draw support, were not represented on the voter lists and were turned away from the polls, observers said.” In addition, electoral monitors reported “an unusually high number of voters [being] assisted in casting their ballots, another sign that they might have been pressured by the governing party to vote in Mr. Mugabe’s favor,” and that “far more ballots were printed than were actually needed.” What happened to those extra ballots after the polls closed remains a mystery.
Alongside the more unsavory forms of electoral manipulation, it bears remembering that many of the same standard electoral strategies found in any representative democracy were clearly at work in Zimbabwe. Questions of how to energize a party’s base, register and mobilize new voters, or exploit an opponent’s weaknesses, for example, were all central during the election.
In addition, as Percy Zvomuya points out in a recent piece, “Zimbabwe remains, for many, just a metaphor—not an actual physical terrain whose people have hopes, ambitions and fears.” For many northern commentators, Zimbabwe is simply a dysfunctional failing state led “from breadbasket to basket case” by an aging dictator, but not a place where debate happens in parliament, policy gets made, and ordinary people care about substantive issues that go beyond and cut across Mugabe’s presence in the state house.
To uncritically assume, therefore, that ZANU-PF’s victory resulted solely from the timeworn tactics of fraud and intimidation is a mistake. Much of the focus on ZANU’s unseemliness in northern media stems from the distaste with which Mugabe is held in the west. To be sure, there is plenty to criticize in the ruling party’s time in power. But there is no getting around the fact that ZANU-PF remains popular with many Zimbabweans, and that however bright the MDC’s prospects once were, the opposition’s potential has been weakened by infighting and elitist politics as usual in Harare. So long as the MDC remains at war with itself and disconnected from its base, its prospects for gains on the ground and in the voting booth will remain dim.
* This post was first published in Warscapes Magazine.