The only good in last week’s elections in Zimbabwe is that they did not descend into violence.
In 2008, Robert Mugabe’s thugs harassed opposition supporters so mercilessly that the Movement for Democratic Change was forced to pull out. Morgan Tsvangirai did join the government in the end, as prime minister, but Mr Mugabe hung on to the presidency, despite the more than three decades of increasingly violent and autocratic rule that have run his country into the ground.
This time around, it would seem, the tenacious 89-year-old has pursued a rather subtler course. By Saturday evening, when he was awarded a landslide victory and a fifth consecutive term of office, few had hopes of any other result. Sure enough, Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party was credited with a resounding 61 per cent of the vote – enough not only to avoid a run-off, but also to alter the recently approved constitution. Yet even sceptics acknowledged that the vote was peaceful and turn-out was high.
There the concessions end, though. Although the polling itself has been endorsed by election observers from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, critics point to systematic rigging weeks ahead of the vote. The number of ballot papers printed far outstripped the number of voters, with the names of dead people added and many young and urban voters (more likely to favour the MDC) left off. As many as a million people may have been turned away from polling stations as a result. Mr Tsvangirai was quick to cry foul, describing the vote as “fraudulent and stolen”. He is now, justifiably, refusing to participate in any new government and has launched a legal challenge. Nor is this mere sour grapes. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, has made it clear that Washington does not consider the results “credible”. William Hague has also expressed “grave concerns”, as has the EU.
The question, of course, is what happens next? The priority is for independent investigators to get to the bottom of the allegations of vote-rigging. Yet there is little reason to expect Mr Mugabe to be moved, whatever the conclusion.
All of which bodes badly for Zimbabwe. There is much to criticise in Mr Tsvangirai’s record in government, and questions remain over his ability to hang on to the leadership of the MDC, let alone create the “grand coalition” opposition movement needed to challenge Zanu-PF effectively. Nonetheless, the situation on the ground has markedly improved over the last five years; despite continuing sanctions, the economy is no longer in freefall and standards of living have markedly improved.
A return to Zanu-PF hegemony not only risks a return to catastrophic economic mismanagement and, perhaps, more sanctions. There is also a very real risk that frustrated MDC supporters will refuse to take their defeat lying down. So far, the streets are quiet; but they may not remain so. Zimbabwe’s election may be officially won, but the outcome is far from certain.