Zimbabwe’s Troubled Election: Will the Region Step-In?

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Zimbabwe’s elections this past weekend were, in many respects, a rerun of the 2018 vote, with the same main presidential contestants, but with the population now suffering from greater economic distress and a severe decline in basic social services. Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) announced on Aug. 26 that incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa had defeated his opponent, Nelson Chamisa, with 52.6 percent of the vote and was duly elected for a second term. Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF party, which has controlled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, also won 136 of the 209 contested National Assembly seats.

But if Mnangagwa thought he had managed to control the election observation process this time, including with disinformation planted in state-owned news media, he was in for a surprise. Even before the results were made public, the five principal organizations observing Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections – Africa Union, Commonwealth, European Union, Southern African Development Community (SADC), and Carter Center — offered preliminary statements regarding the conduct of the electoral process. In view of the administrative chaos on election day and other pre-election irregularities, all five delegations noted concerns with specific aspects of the elections, which may have been predictable even to the government. But the blunt criticism offered by the SADC delegation caught the government off guard.

The government would have anticipated negative statements from the European Union and the Carter Center.  For more than a year, Mnangagwa and his associates emphasized that only organizations from “friendly” countries would be invited to observe the election and insisted that observers must stay within their lane. The effect was to discourage the observer organizations from issuing any public criticism during the pre-election period or risk not being accredited.

In the case of the Carter Center, the government belatedly invited the organization to observe just 49 days prior to the elections and denied visas to key personnel (Full disclosure: I was one of those individuals.) Once the team began deploying, government-controlled media publicized the names of its observers from neighboring African countries, alleging falsely that they had “clandestine motives” and planned to “stoke tensions,” and that they previously had subverted constitutional government in their own home countries. This effort heightened security concerns for the Carter Center mission and required extra precautions to ensure the safety of the observers. As a final insult, the election commission denied accreditation to 30 of the 40 short-term Carter Center observers, forcing last-minute adjustments of assignments.

The European Union election-observation mission (EOM), meanwhile, faced accusations publicized in the same state-owned newspaper that its observers had handed out whiskey and grocery vouchers to “influence journalists to make outlandish claims that seek to sully the whole election process.” The EU mission rejected the allegations and noted in its post-election statement that  “there was an extensive information campaign against the EU EOM and unacceptable attempts to discredit the mission as well as other international observer organisations by some media.”

SADC’s Surprising Role

As the government sought to discredit the European Union and Carter Center missions, it emphasized the significance of observers from regional actors, particularly the SADC observers. Traditionally, SADC has been dominated by leaders of countries that emerged from the same liberation struggles as Zimbabwe, including Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and South Africa. Given SADC’s track record, the government undoubtedly anticipated a positive report from its observers.

But several election day events were impossible for even the most sympathetic observers to ignore. Many polling stations did not open on time — or, in some cases, at all – on election day, because the requisite election paraphernalia had not arrived. ZEC attributed the problems to a delay in printing ballots caused by outstanding litigation concerning the eligibility of certain candidates. However, as noted by the SADC delegation, the delays were almost exclusively in areas that traditionally supported the opposition, especially the major cities of Harare and Bulawayo. Equally important, the SADC observers had raised the issue of electoral readiness with the ZEC prior to the elections and were assured that everything was in order. Thus, the SADC statement suggests that ZEC was either purposely untruthful or lacking in transparency in failing to acknowledge the possibility that election materials would not be available at certain polling sites.

The ruling party also deployed members of Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ), a shadowy organization that was accredited to observe the elections, to station themselves outside polling stations, and to collect personal data from voters. These activities, as described in the SADC statement, served to intimidate voters by suggesting that it would easy to determine who voted for which parties. Following the elections, the head of the Africa Union observer delegation, former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, commented that the “FAZ activities should be declared criminal offenses.”

A third factor that contributed to the critical SADC report was police raids on the offices of two well-regarded domestic monitoring organizations, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and the Election Resource Centre (ERC), and the arrests of 39 of their staff members. The two organizations were conducting a parallel vote tabulation, whereby they could either verify or counter the official results released by ZEC. The individuals arrested were released within 48 hours, but they now face criminal trials on spurious charges of having violated Zimbabwe law proscribing the premature release of election results.

Parallel vote tabulations are common practice worldwide; indeed, as ZESN has noted, its 2018 tabulation was used by the ruling party to confirm the ZEC pronouncement of a Mnangagwa victory and to refute the opposition’s claim that it had won overwhelmingly. The government’s brazen attempt to interfere with such a widely-accepted practice was quickly condemned by a global network of domestic monitoring organizations and by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which provided assistance to the two organizations.

`Short of the Requirements of the Constitution’

These incidents and others that are described in the report led the SADC delegation, headed by former Zambian Vice President Nevers Mumba, to conclude “that some aspects of the Harmonised Elections, fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021).” Such overt criticism of a fellow SADC member was unprecedented. Within hours, a ruling party spokesperson responded that the head of delegation was “reporting on his own personal opinion to discredit the country’s polls and not reflecting the SADC electoral principles.”

Mumba dismissed the criticism as “laughable,” reiterating that the mission was present in-country at the invitation of the government to observe, and operated in a collegial manner as required by SADC guidelines. The following day, SADC headquarters in Botswana issued a statement of support for its delegation on the ground.

However, two of the three members of the current SADC troika, the presidents of Tanzania and Namibia, congratulated Mnangagwa on his election victory without any reference to the concerns raised by the SADC observers. And with South Africa’s president also offering congratulations to Mnangagwa on his victory, SADC is primed to resume business as usual, notwithstanding the SADC delegation’s criticism of the process.

Given the prevailing circumstances, the critiques of Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections by international observers were well-warranted and demonstrate the limits of a concerted government strategy to influence the assessment of international organizations. International observers, by referencing recognized regional and international standards and their respective guidelines, stayed well within their lane and reinforced their value.

What’s Next

Looking to the future, organizations that deploy international observers should reflect upon the proper responses to government delays in accrediting observers and efforts to undermine their work. One option is for observer organizations to issue periodic assessments addressing key elements of pre-election activities so as to encourage shifts in policy or practice that would enhance the credibility of the process. A second option is for organizations to refuse a government invitation that comes late in the process or to scale down the scope of a mission where appropriate guarantees regarding the selection and accreditation of observers and their freedom of movement are not forthcoming.

The Zimbabwe 2023 election saga is not yet complete. While Mnangagwa’s vote percentage, as reported by ZEC, increased slightly from 50.8 percent in 2018 to 52.6 percent in this year’s elections, overall turnout decreased from 85 percent to 68 percent, likely reflecting either growing apathy among voters or a successful voter-suppression operation, or both. The lack of an independent parallel vote tabulation obviously complicates the task of validating the ZEC-announced vote count, and Chamisa has denounced the released results as reflecting “a blatant and gigantic fraud.” But the opposition has not decided whether to challenge the election results before Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court, which they view as captured by the ruling party, or to rely on sustained international pressure to deny the ruling party electoral legitimacy.

The reported results reinforce evidence of the polarization that exists within Zimbabwe and the deep distrust between the major parties. The SADC delegation’s critical assessment of the election process provides an opportunity for the organization to buck tradition and act as a credible mediator in helping Zimbabwe address the major political and economic challenges the country faces. The dispatch of an SADC team of elders to Zimbabwe could reflect an interest in SADC serving in this capacity.

But such a shift in orientation would require SADC’s political echelon to engage Zimbabwe’s principal political actors in a manner that does not bestow electoral legitimacy on the announced winner of a process that the organization’s observers have assessed as severely flawed. That seems unlikely, given the congratulatory messages, but the SADC observer delegation certainly delivered a surprise; perhaps its political leaders could muster the courage to do the same.

Larry Garber is an independent election expert; he is serving as a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises and is a senior member of the Carter Center’s U.S. Election Expert Study Team. 

This piece appeared first on the excellent Just Security blog. Check out their great website here.

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