Zimbabwe: a retrospective preview

Zimbabwe went to the polls on Monday (an unusual day for it – the previous election was on a Wednesday) to elect a president and parliament, but no results have yet been released. So this is something between a preview and a post-election report.

Most readers will be reasonably familiar with the Zimbabwe story, since almost alone of the troubled states of sub-Saharan Africa it gets a fair amount of media coverage in Australia. This is no doubt related to the fact that its troubles have affected its remnant European population, and are therefore newsworthy – whereas Africans killing one another are held not to be.

The long rule of Robert Mugabe, who had controlled the country (first as prime minister, then president) since independence in 1980, finally came to an end last November when a military coup forced his resignation. He was replaced by his former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is now seeking election in his own right.

Mnangagwa and the ruling ZANU-PF party are being challenged, as usual, by the Movement for Democratic Change, whose presidential candidate is Nelson Chamisa.

The MDC has had a difficult gig in Zimbabwe over the years. While opposition never actually became illegal, its members put their lives and liberty at risk to challenge the regime. The MDC’s long-time leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, was arrested numerous times and beaten by Mugabe’s thugs. But he survived to see Mugabe’s fall, before dying from cancer earlier this year.

Mugabe himself is still at liberty, and in an interview last week announced that he was supporting Chamisa in preference to Mnangagwa, whose accession he regards as unconstitutional.

Although it was the intervention of the military that brought him to power, Mnangagwa has won praise for his reforms: the election has clearly been conducted in a much fairer and more open atmosphere than was customary. But the delay in releasing results may now be calling that into question.

The MDC claims that Chamisa has won, and that the delay is due to efforts by the government to rig things in Mnangagwa’s favor. While this is certainly possible, it should be said that such claims are pretty much the norm for oppositions in less-developed democracies throughout the world, including many cases where they are clearly unfounded.

Zimbabwe’s electoral machinery is creaky at best, and in the past has been operated with a strong bias towards ZANU-PF. Mugabe’s 61.1% in 2013 no doubt inflated his real level of support, although whether or not Tsvangirai would have beaten him in a fair election is impossible to tell.

The electoral commission has rejected any suggestion of impropriety and called for patience – the official deadline for results is not until Saturday, although it promises they will be released before then. It also warns that announcement of unofficial results on social media is illegal, which does not exactly inspire confidence.

A number of results have been released, however, from the legislative election held at the same time. According to the (pro-government) Herald, they show ZANU-PF in a strong position, winning 73 of the 102 seats declared so far (out of a total of 270) in the House of Assembly.

On that basis, Chamisa will have an uphill task to win the presidential vote, but stranger things have happened.

Updates to follow as the situation develops.

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