Zimbabwe: a national future hanging in the balance

Last week, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party once again stole an election from the Zimbabwean people. The news stories of electoral fraud and corruption only scratch the surface of the nation’s woes: for the cheated citizenry, this means more than just continued corruption; it means that perpetual oppression, poverty, and both political and economic turmoil will continue.

It is important to remember that, before the election, many analysts were predicting a Mugabe victory, even had the election been free and fair. Winning 76% of parliamentary seats, however, is far beyond any conception of credibility. The words ‘free and fair’ in Zimbabwe do not carry as much weight as elsewhere: regardless of the conduct of the ballot, the country’s newspapers are still controlled by the government. For many in undeveloped rural areas, ZANU-PF propaganda permeates all available media. Furthermore, leading ZANU-PF politicians and election candidates own much rural land — seized under the policy of ‘land reform’ and gifted to them — and consequently employ a large proportion of farm laborers. In a country with unemployment estimated between 80 and 95%, voting against one’s employer is unthinkable. In the areas of the country that do have access to external media and an economy that is not controlled by the political elite, such as the cities of Harare and Bulawayo, tourist areas, and border towns, the victory for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was emphatic enough that it could not be doctored by vote rigging, the evidence for which is as extensive as it is shocking.

In the 2008 election, the MDC won a slim majority in Parliament and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, led the first round of the presidential elections before pulling out of the run-off due to political violence. In the following months, a South African-brokered power sharing agreement formed a coalition Government of National Unity (GNU) between the two parties, with Tsvangirai as Prime Minister and Mugabe as President. What has changed so dramatically since then such that the MDC only gained a third of the vote this time around? Perhaps the scale of electoral fraud was much greater this time around, though this seems unlikely. In truth, the lives of many Zimbabweans have improved since 2008, to a situation in which the economic free-fall has at least stabilized, if not even showing signs of modest recovery. The Zimbabwean media (and therefore most of the public) attributes this turnaround to President Mugabe, while highlighting how many MDC politicians, newly in positions of power, became implicated in the same corrupt activities that they had so decried as members of the opposition.

Despite this very real support for Mugabe, it is clear that inconsistencies in the voting process are likely to have greatly exaggerated the result of the contest. The Zimbabwe Election Support Network’s 7,000 observers described irregularities in the electoral roll as a “systematic effort to disenfranchise an estimated one million workers”, mostly in the urban heartland of MDC support, where fewer than 68% of voters were registered, compared to 99.97% in rural areas. There are numerous allegations of duplicated and dead voters being listed as eligible to vote, including an army officer who, at 135 years old, is a full 19 years older than the oldest man ever to have lived in any country, let alone in one ravaged by malaria, AIDS and cholera. Critics have suggested that the “assisted vote” system, in which officials cast a paper ballot on behalf of an illiterate voter who makes their choice orally, was abused by officials – illiteracy rates are far below the 25% of assisted votes cast in some constituencies.

Tsvangirai’s MDC has dismissed the election as a “sham” and have refused to cooperate with any government institutions. It is unclear what sort of a political precedent this will set: if no MDC politicians attend parliament, the nation could be plunged into a constitutional crisis. MDC will fight through the courts, but this will be hopeless: judges are appointed by the president. Legal challenges will be lengthy and complicated. At most, a handful of parliamentary seats will be forced to re-run the election. Mugabe’s majority will not be challenged unless the international community steps in. And, barring the occasional strongly worded speech, it won’t. Southern African neighbors and the western world have stood by in the past as spectators to political violence and even tribal massacre (some refer to it as genocide); they are unlikely to step in now. Zimbabwe has been forgotten by the outside world.

Some in the MDC have called for a mass campaign of civil disobedience to force political change. However, this is unrealistic in Zimbabwe. For such a mass campaign to be effective, there needs to be popular hope that change can be achieved, or at least a raw wound of fresh injustice. Any hope of progress was lost many years ago; this election has just been the latest of many disappointments to have slowly crushed the nation’s spirit. Furthermore, citizens fear the security services, including the secret Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) and the powerful military, which have proved merciless in reaction to civil unrest in the past.

Consequently, the oppressive policies of the last 33 years, which have ravaged a country once considered one of Africa’s most developed, are unlikely to change. “Indigenization”, the backbone of the ZANU-PF manifesto, is a euphemism for racial and economically destructive measures inspired by Mugabe’s Marxist nationalism. It forces all economic activity to be controlled by “indigenous Zimbabweans” – defined as any black Africans who lived in Zimbabwe before independence – effectively ending foreign investment, the only hope for the country’s budding mining and tourism industries. Equally worrying is that, having won a two-thirds majority in parliament, ZANU-PF has been granted the opportunity to change, or abolish, the new constitution. Negotiated by the GNU, it limits the powers of the president and establishes individual rights for citizens. Zimbabwe’s turbulent past will become its hopeless future: constitutional change may return Zimbabwe to the police state of the 1980s and 90s, while the destructive policy of indigenization could recreate the economic turmoil of the 2000s.

Many would argue that the future is uncertain for Zimbabweans, but it is not. The future is clear: even more years of desolate and hopeless struggle. The nation’s recent history has been marred by some of the worst crises that the world has witnessed, from political massacre to economic catastrophe. These plagues are now set to return once again, to add to the scourges of the disease-ridden, poverty-stricken population.

About Author

James Watkins

James Watkins is a former Editor-in-Chief of the Harvard International Review, and contributes Global Notebook, World in Review, and Blog articles on a range of issues.