Election preview: Zimbabwe

Voting is under way in Zimbabwe’s presidential and parliamentary election. Polls close at 7pm local time, or 3am eastern Australian time.

I don’t feel the need to preview things at any length because Henry Belot did a fine job of it in Crikey today. He depicts a country where the 2008 power-sharing arrangement between president Robert Mugabe and prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai has been an equivocal success. Economic collapse has been averted and some democratic reforms have been achieved, but Mugabe’s party retains a grip on the key state institutions and has no reluctance about using them for partisan purposes.

A common view (which I have expressed myself) is that Tsvangirai only needs a fair poll in order to win. As Belot says:

A leading Zimbabwe-based policy analyst has told Crikey the election will bring a change of government should the polling remain free from corruption and violent intimidation. “Tsvangirai has the upper hand and should win comfortably provided that the results are not manipulated and the election is free, fair, and credible,” said the analyst, who wished to remain anonymous.

The fact that such an analyst won’t divulge their name is a clue to the climate of intimidation that still prevails. Nonetheless, the indications are that things have improved significantly in that respect since last time, when Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round (having led in the first) due to fears of violence against his supporters. Reports this week suggest a much more orderly process; as Fairfax’s Martin Sherrard puts it, “this time there has been no violence to speak of”.

There are clearly major problems with the state of the electoral roll; it allegedly shows more than 116,000 people, or well over 1% of the population, to be aged 100 or more. But there are limits to what negligence or fraud of that nature can achieve, and if Zimbabwe’s voters are determined to throw Mugabe out then they may still be able to do so. Moreover, Mugabe’s promise that he really will leave if defeated has been a good deal more explicit than in the past.

The vote for president is a simple nationwide two-round system. There are three other candidates beside Mugabe and Tsvangirai; they will be well behind, but they ensure that if the result is close there will be a runoff, scheduled for six weeks’ time (11 September) – leaving plenty of time for things to go wrong.

Zimbabweans are also voting for both houses of parliament, the House of Assembly and the Senate. Each is elected on the British model, by first-past-the-post voting in single-member constituencies (Adam Carr has the 2008 figures here). The Senate has additional appointed seats, which give the government a majority, but the opposition has a narrow majority in the outgoing lower house.

Two other very good previews of the election are by Brian Hungwe and Andrew Harding at the BBC. (Hungwe is in Zimbabwe; Harding is the chief Africa correspondent but says he has been refused a visa.) Today’s report by Lydia Polgreen in the New York Times is excellent.

In the past the reporting of results has been late and unreliable. Constitutional reform is supposed to have addressed this, but no-one knows how well it will work. Check the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission site; news should also appear at the Zimbabwe Herald (government owned and unashamedly pro-Mugabe, but generally comprehensive) or at the opposition-leaning Zimbabwean, which is already running multiple stories about alleged electoral malfeasance.

All we can do now is wait and see.

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