"The people of Zimbabwe go to the polls this weekend." To anyone who has been even half-following developments in southern Africa, this simple statement suggests one response: loud, hollow laughter.
The main opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, has been hounded and charged with treason. Gangs of government-sponsored thugs are roaming the countryside threatening his suspected supporters. Journalists have been branded as terrorists, driven into exile or gagged. And the army, having warned that it would seize power itself if President Robert Mugabe failed to regain power, has been entrusted with running the elections.
The Zimbabwe government's insistence that it is entirely competent to run a democratic election looks like special pleading of a particularly dishonest kind. So, officials in Harare know how to run an election, we scoff; sure they do – and we all know who will win – and how.
All this may come to pass. There are many ways to fix an election, and even if violence and intimidation do not have the intended effect, there is always the count. The longer the counting goes on after the voting on Saturday and Sunday, the greater the probability that the election has been (a) close and (b) rigged. But for those of us ensconced in safety outside Zimbabwe to forecast the result in advance with such certainty is to patronise and demean the voters.
The past 15 years have been distinguished by a spread of democracy that may be without precedent. One dictatorial regime after another has collapsed. In advance, however, the predictions from the First World were invariably pessimistic. Few believed that power would pass in such relative peace. When the first semi-democratic elections were held in the former Soviet Union in the late Eighties, the early reports of intimidation and rigging were legion. From the electoral registers to the material inducements provided at polling stations, everything was arranged to favour the monopoly Communist Party and its protégés.
Offered even half a choice, however, voters displayed extraordinary determination, common sense and, yes, idealism. Before successive elections in Russia, doom-watchers have forecast sweeping victories for extremists, mostly from the right. But the "red-brown" communist-fascist alliance has never come near taking power in Russia, or anywhere else for that matter. In those eastern and central European countries with a past tradition of democracy, the embrace of democracy was even swifter and more comprehensive.
The enthusiasm for even inadequate versions of democracy is hardly unique to Russia and central Europe. You have only to recall those pictures of the first post-apartheid election in South Africa, those hundreds of thousands of people queuing patiently to vote, to appreciate the appeal of elections. And if a one-party system effectively excludes choice at the top, local elections or candidate selection meetings are often hotly and genuinely contested. China and Libya may not immediately come to mind as paragons of democracy, but in the lower ranks of representation not everything there is pre-ordained.
It may be true that the less accustomed voters are to elections, the greater the respect they accord to their vote. In 1991, when Ukrainians voted in their referendum on independence, I watched parents and grandparents carrying their children to the ballot-box to cast their vote, taking photographs and telling their three-, four- or five-year-olds dressed in their Sunday best that they should remember this day for the rest of their lives: they were deciding their country's future.
But even when elections fall short of "free and fair", voters are still capable of defying the odds. Having reported on all manner of elections, I have one overriding impression: amid rank dishonesty, political blackmail and nasty, targeted violence, voters can show admirable courage, resilience and discernment. Surrounded by a cacophony of extremism, they can exercise a remarkable degree of moderation.
In any election where 100 per cent of the votes have not been vetted in advance, the closure of the polls and the sealing of the ballot boxes is a magical moment. However much of a sham such formalities may be, from then until the announcement of the result, there is that element of doubt, that frisson of excitement, that is unique to elections. The uncertainty may be over in minutes – French television builds a portrait of the new President on screen within minutes of the polls closing – or hours. It may last for days, or, as in the United States in 2000, it may drag on for weeks. But it is an enchanted period when no one knows for certain what will come next.
So when the polling stations in Zimbabwe close on Sunday night and the ballot boxes are sealed, resist that rush to cynicism and give the country's hard-pressed voters a chance. If repression prevails, there is time for anger. But don't write off Zimbabweans before they have voted. They may yet surprise us.Reuse content