Zimbabwe should make us question whether the form of democracy the West extols is such a good idea

We should have been more cautious about the prospects for Zimbabwe’s first meaningful election for more than 40 years

Zimbabwe election: Shots fired at protesting crowds in Harare as violence escalates

How quickly the mood, and the forecasts, can change. Last weekend, Zimbabwe was preparing for elections intended to seal the transition to the post-Mugabe era through the democratic process. There was praise for the spirited and generally orderly campaign; optimism that the elections – for both president and parliament – would be judged (sufficiently) free and fair, and joy pervading the lines of voters waiting patiently from early Monday morning to perform their civic duty.

Nowhere perhaps was the relief more palpable than in the corridors of power in London. The former colonial power tried not to sound too patronising as it willed this particularly troubled child to come at last, responsibly, of age.

Within 48 hours of the polls closing, however, much of that hope had been shattered. With the ruling Zanu-PF declared to have won two-thirds of parliamentary seats and no result even on the horizon for the presidency, angry crowds descended on the electoral commission in the capital, calling the vote “stolen” and “rigged”. There were running battles with the police; the army was ordered in, and calm was restored only because of troops on the streets and military helicopters overhead. By this time, many were injured and at least four people were dead.

And as the mood changed, so did the messages. The UN Secretary General called on all sides to show restraint. A UK foreign office minister called on Zimbabwe’s political leaders to “take responsibility for ensuring calm and restraint”. Amnesty International said that people’s right to respect had to be protected, while the home affairs minister warned of a further crackdown if the protestors did not desist.

At the time of writing, it is still not clear whether the sitting president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, or his much younger rival, Nelson Chamisa, will prevail as the country’s next leader. The result has to be declared at the latest on Saturday. But will it be, and how much trust will any announcement command now? What are the chances that Zimbabwe will be able to settle down under a new president and attract the international help and investment it so desperately needs – or will a close and – now doubtless disputed – result stoke future conflict?

With the benefit of hindsight, of course, it was unrealistic to expect that the transition from 40 chequered years under Robert Mugabe would be smooth. Yet the figures for the election were seductive: more than 50 parties competing for parliament; 23 candidates for president; more than 40 per cent of registered voters under 35, and EU and US election monitors invited for the first time in 16 years. It all made for a sharp and welcome contrast with 2008, when violence was endemic and and an estimated 200 people lost their lives.

Chamisa supporters celebrate in capital, but no Zimbabwe result yet

In some respects, the prelude to this election was also heartening. Mugabe’s departure, when it came last November, was reluctant and grudging in the extreme, but it was peaceful. Crowds descended on the streets not to protest, but to rejoice. There was also a successor in the wings – in the shape of Emmerson Mnangagwa (‘the crocodile’).

Those very same facts, however, also contained warnings. For all that there was public celebration, this was very far from being a consensual or democratic transfer of power. It was enforced, and the military helped the process along. What is more, with his security background, and in his seventies, Mnangagwa hardly constituted a new broom. It is no wonder that many, especially younger voters, hailed Chamisa, a pastor and lawyer 30 years younger, when the ballot-box appeared, at least, to give them the choice.

It is too early to write off this election. But at least some of the fault for what has happened – and what may yet happen – is ours. By which I mean not just the UK as the former colonial power, which showed more inconsistency and lack of principle in its handling of Zimbabwe over longer than in its handling of almost anywhere else. I also mean all those outside Zimbabwe who rejoiced at the removal of Mugabe, while turning a blind eye to what was essentially a military coup. The desired end does not itself justify the means – still less should the means be dressed up as somehow an expression of democracy.

Above all, though, I wonder whether the form of democracy that we in the West extol as the gold standard and have foisted on so many others for that reason, is really such a good idea for everyone. Elections based on competing political parties may indeed be the best that we can do, and electoral systems can be refined (or manipulated) with the use of different mechanisms: proportional representation, first past the post, electoral colleges and the like.

But the fact remains that elections based on parties – which in many countries reflect ethnic groups or past enemies – are divisive, or contain built-in majorities that then have to be re-adjusted for, if the minority or minorities are ever to gain representation in central organs of power. It is all very well for evangelists for elections to cite Churchill to the effect that democracy is the “worst form of government – except for all the others”.

But perhaps, with all the new resources at our disposal since those words were uttered, it might be time to look for something that could improve the narrow electoral form of democracy the West has settled on, and now preaches to others. Iraq and Afghanistan have provided graphic testimony in recent years of the deficiencies of this sort of electoral democracy, and Syria may be next. Is there nothing better we, and they, could do to make orderly government by consent a reality?

And from high principle to nuts and bolts. A final element that was surely underestimated, by outsiders at least, in these Zimbabwe elections, was the extent to which any even half-genuine election is fraught with risk. Just ask Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, or Al Gore. The moment when voters enter the booth, mark, punch or tap their choice, is a moment when the future hangs in the balance. Even in countries where voting can be – how to put it? – controlled by a variety of methods, the electoral process is still not 100 per cent reliable.

In this world of instant communications, if enough people do not like, or trust, the result, they may take to the streets in the hope of getting their way by other means. Remember the crowds camped out in the snow during what became known as Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, who eventually forced the re-run of a rigged election? Contingencies have to be built in for unexpected, or unwelcome, results. We should have been more cautious about the prospects for Zimbabwe’s first meaningful election for more than 40 years. Five days after Zimbabweans voted, this election is not over yet.

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