Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders warned that the country risked a new descent into chaos, alleging that this week’s elections had been tainted by “monumental rigging” in which President Robert Mugabe’s party had blocked millions from voting.
With vote counting still underway, Mugabe’s long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai said he would refuse to accept the result when it comes, calling it “null and void” due to what he said were multiple instances of electoral fraud.
His words were echoed by election monitors, with the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN), the country’s largest observer group, saying that Wednesday’s presidential and parliamentary poll had been “seriously compromised.”
Tsvangirai, who heads the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is vying to oust the 89-year-old Mugabe, who has been in power continuously since Zimbabwe became an independent nation in 1980.
Speaking at a press conference, Tsvangirai described the poll as a “huge farce”, and warned that it would destabilise an already crisis-ridden country.
“The shoddy manner in which it has been conducted and the consequent illegitimacy of the result will plunge this country into a serious crisis,” he said, also citing accusations of the militarisation of the process, lack of transparency in ballot printing, and double voting.
MDC’s secretary general Tendai Biti described what he called “monumental rigging” by Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. “It was done in a manner so crude it is unbelievable,” said Biti, who is also the country’s finance minister.
While Wednesday's poll was mostly peaceful, the vote rigging allegations have sparked concerns of a repeat of the deadly violence that marred the previous elections in 2008. Tsvangirai, who led after the first round of the 2008 presidential poll, withdrew his candidacy and later became the country’s prime minister in an uneasy power sharing arrangement with Mugabe.
Election monitors and rights groups warned that the outwardly peaceful and orderly voting on Wednesday belied a catalogue of shenanigans that denied around one million people their vote. The ZESN, which deployed more than 7,000 observers to every constituency in Zimbabwe, said that a systematic rigging of electoral rolls meant that voters were turned away in urban areas, where Tsvangirai is popular.
It found that although 99.97 per cent of rural voters were registered, the figure was only 67.94 per cent for urban voters. And while 82 per cent of urban polling stations turned away voters – for example, because their names were not on the voters roll – the figure was just 38 per cent in rural stations. “Up to a million voters were disenfranchised,” ZESN chairman Solomon Zwana said. “The election is seriously compromised.”
ZESN, a coalition of 31 non-governmental organisations, said this was compounded by state media bias, a campaign of intimidation in rural areas, and the rushed electoral process. “These factors on their own fundamentally undermine the degree to which the election can be considered to reflect the will of the Zimbabwean people,” the group said in its report.
About 6.4 million people, or half the population, were registered to vote, up from 5.2 million in 2008. Electoral authorities have pledged to release the results within a five-day deadline aimed at forestalling a repeat of the 2008 bloodshed that was unleashed during the five weeks it took before formal figures were announced.
ZANU-PF dismissed the claims of vote fixing, while predicting that the president would be re-elected with a handsome majority. “It's a landslide, a total annihilation of the MDC,” said Saviour Kasukuwere, ZANU-PF's youth and indigenisation minister. One ZANU-PF official also indicated that a major celebration was planned at the party headquarters after the results are announced on Monday.
David Coltart, the outgoing Education Minister, says the electoral fraud has been blatant, with the election being manipulated at almost every stage. “With such serious breaches of the law and constitution, it is hard to say the elections are fair,” says Coltart, a coalition ally of Tsvangirai.
Coltart predicts that ZANU-PF will win both the presidency and the parliament. “Although I say ‘win’ in inverted commas,” he says, adding that he even expects Mugabe to secure more than 50% of the presidential vote, thereby avoiding a run-off vote that would be scheduled on 11 September. “In theory we can challenge the results in courts, but in practice we know that this would be a fruitless action,” he says.
The longer term effect of the vote, Coltart says, will the reversal of the steady progress the country has made since 2008 to restore its ailing economy and regain international respectability. “It will be hard for ZANU PF to say that the result reflects the genuine will of the people, and this will impact relations with International community and future investment,” he said. “It’s a very sad day. Having agreed a new constitution, and stabilised the country, this sends us right back to 2008 and means the aspirations of Zimbabwe people will not be met.”
Anti-corruption group Transparency International also condemned the poll for effectively disenfranchised a large chunk of the election. “Although the counting is still ongoing, we can say the process leading to the election has not been free and fair,” says the group’s Executive Director for Zimbabwe, Mary-Jane Ncube, who added that concerns from the civil society and other stakeholders were ignored by election authorities. “We feel the public will is not being reflected in this election.
Although western observers are barred from the elections, around 600 external monitors from the African Union (AU) and the South African Development Community (SADC) were deployed around the country. The head of AU observer mission, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, said he had not seen “substantiated” instances of fraud promised to investigate reports of irregularities. But some AU monitors have informally said they were very concerned about voters being turned away from polling stations. SADC observes also raised concerns about the voters roll being unavailable before the election, as well as the biased media coverage given to some political parties.