Sham or not, election flaws unlikely to unseat Mugabe

Looks like five more years. Wikimedia Commons

The recent elections in Zimbabwe were always likely to be problematic. Despite the hope of former South African president Thabo Mbeki in 2007 that his mediation efforts would lead to an vote that was “conducted in a manner that will make it impossible for any honest person in Zimbabwe to question the legitimacy of their outcomes,” this was the case neither in the 2008 nor the 2013 elections.

In the run up to the latest elections there were several issues that militated against a generally acceptable outcome. These ranged from Zanu PF’s persistent obstruction and widely reported problems around voters’ registration and the voters’ roll, to the persistent, though reduced, tensions over the sanctions conditions imposed on the Mugabe regime by the West from the early 2000s.

A combination of Zanu PF’s ruthlessness in dealing with opposition parties, the allure of employment opportunities, the shrinking social base of the opposition and the limits of Southern African Development Community’s response to a recalcitrant Mugabe regime, all constrained threats from the now factionalised Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of mass action against yet another stolen election.

Zanu PF ‘victory’ dwarfs 2009

Thus the results of the recent elections were only a surprise to the extent that Zanu PF’s “victory” was so overwhelming. In the March 2008 election Mugabe received 45% of the presidential vote while his party won 99 parliamentary seats, while in the same election Morgan Tsvangirai received 48% of the presidential vote and his party 100 seats. In 2013 Mugabe’s share of the presidential vote leaped to 61% while that of Tsvangirai plunged to 33%, with their parties receiving 159 and 49 parliamentary seats respectively.

Lacklustre performance: Morgan Tsvangirai. Wikimedia Commons

How did this happen? It is still too early to make a thorough assessment of the 2013 elections. However some general remarks can be proffered. Firstly there is little doubt that Zanu PF’s deliberate obstruction in fully implementing the reform measures, in particular changes to the security sector, made it difficult for the MDCs to fully exploit any political spaces that may have opened up under such reforms.

But it cannot be denied that the performance of the MDCs left much to be desired, and their lack of political co-ordination allowed Mugabe to weaken their effectiveness and exploit the differences between the two factions.

The legacy of the violence of 2008 also appears to have played a role – while the run up was peaceful this time around, memories of violence combined with verbal threats could have been sufficient to intimidate voters into not voting for the opposition in 2013. ZANU’s coercive power over who has access to council flats and vending stands could also have influenced voting.

Mugabe power base remains strong

Having said all that, it is also clear that Mugabe and his party retain a substantial social base. Even when Mugabe and Zanu PF lost the March 2008 elections, as the figures above show, the percentage differences were small, though of major significance. Moreover the shape of Zimbabwe’s political economy has changed substantially in the 2000s since the major transformation on the land.

The deconstruction of former white-owned, large-scale commercial farms and their replacement by a preponderance of small farm holders has radically changed the social and political relations in these areas. The new forms in which Zanu PF and the state have penetrated these new social relations have affected the forms of Zanu PF dominance in these areas. The rapid expansion of small-scale, “informal” mining companies has also brought a larger number of workers into the fold of Zanu PF’s accumulation and patronage network.

When these factors are combined with the greater political cohesion of Mugabe’s party since the divisions that marked its campaign in 2008 - and the resonance of its messaging around empowerment and indigenisation particularly amongst the youth, it is apparent that there are multiple reasons for the political resurgence of Mugabe and his party.

The divisions that have emerged over the “freeness and fairness” of this election at national and international levels have, once again, drawn a line between African and Western government responses to the Mugabe regime. This is a terrain that Mugabe has exploited effectively in the past and will no doubt continue to do so.

However the SADC is desperate to draw a line under the longstanding Zimbabwe problem and in its pursuit of stability in the regional and protection of national sovereignty, it has opted for a minimally acceptable election in which the absence of large-scale violence appears to have been the most important litmus test for a credible ballot.

Tsvangirai and his party have challenged the results of the elections, calling it a “sham”. It is highly unlikely that a legal challenge will alter the results, and there is little doubt that Mugabe and his party will move ahead for a further five years with little hindrance from the SADC. It remains to be seen how soon the EU and the US will begin a full re-engagement with Mugabe.