President Bob back for one more turn in Zimbabwe

There’s been a fair bit of coverage of the Zimbabwe result, in which Robert Mugabe was declared re-elected on the first round with 61.1% of the vote to Morgan Tsvangirai’s 33.9% and in which Mugabe’s Zanu-PF won a large majority in the House of Assembly. (Read my preview here.)

I’m a bit reluctant to add to it, because I think western interest in Zimbabwe stems from some not entirely credible motives. For all the outrages of Mugabe’s rule, if he’d stuck to just victimising a black minority I think he’d have received very little attention, no more than a dozen other African authoritarians (of whom he’s by no means the worst) who rarely feature in our papers.

But because Zimbabwe once had a substantial white community, and its remnant was among Mugabe’s targets, he has been demonised in the west in a way that his record, while very bad, does not really justify. I tried to explain my reservations about this in a Crikey article a few years ago.

Turning to last week’s election, however, the first point to make is that there’s no such thing as an election completely free of problems. It makes more sense to think of a continuum, with outright fraud and ballot-stuffing at one end and the relatively trouble-free sort of elections that we in the developed world are used to at the other.

On that basis, Zimbabwe appears to fall somewhere in the middle. There were definitely serious problems; the roll was in bad condition, and lots of intending voters in urban areas were turned away, which benefited – and no doubt was intended to benefit – Mugabe’s party. The organs of state, including the electoral commission, were badly compromised, and government-owned media were (and are) outrageously biased.

On the other hand, 938,000 votes is a big margin to make up. If the population was as resolutely anti-Mugabe as Tsvangirai and some of his western supporters are saying, it would have been a lot closer than that, despite the government’s advantages.

Of course, if you’re seriously rigging an election, it doesn’t matter what the voters want: you can print fake ballots and doctor results to get whatever figures you like. That’s what the Iranian regime was accused (with some plausibility) of doing in 2009. But that was with a highly centralised process quite unlike Zimbabwe’s; the improprieties alleged in this case are much more piecemeal, if not routine.

It would certainly be fairer, as Bob Carr among others now suggests, to re-run the election with a proper roll and more transparent procedures. But the same could be said about a lot of elections that in practice we say little or nothing about. The contrast with this year’s poll in Malaysia, which returned a result demonstrably contrary to the will of the voters but with no adverse Australian reaction, is quite striking.

And there’s no real evidence that a fairer re-run would get a different result, much as we might like it to.

The power-sharing deal that ended the crisis following the 2008 election has worked fairly well for Zimbabwe, but much less well for Tsvangirai personally. He seems to have had the worst of both worlds: in office, so prey to its temptations and unable to present as an outsider, but never really in power, so still faced with the disadvantages of Zanu-PF’s entrenched position.

As Zimbabwe’s economy has improved, popular discontent has evidently waned; the fact that it never would have happened if Mugabe had been left to his own devices is not something that registers with a lot of voters.

Mugabe’s position now is that if Tsvangirai has a problem with the result he should take it to court. But it’s most improbable that even an impeccably fair legal system – which Zimbabwe certainly does not have – would overturn this result.

And it’s hardly likely that Mugabe, at 89, will be contesting another election, so it’s still possible that the opposition’s day will come again.

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