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Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

How are elections really rigged, Mr Trump? Consult Robert Mugabe

“The Donald’s” claim that the American elections are rigged in his opponent’s favour (while it appears that in fact his supporters are doing as much as they can to jimmy the great contest) is reminiscent of many African opposition leaders’ claims.

They, however, are usually proffered after the elections’ results displease them.

Some of these unhappy losers’ claims are as wild as Trump’s – whose fantasies are relatively common in a long history of his country’s paranoid political style. But an unsavoury proportion are close to the bone.

Liberal democrats the world over have been disappointed with the results of the nearly three post-Cold War decades of democracy promotion in Africa. Then, given the fall of the Berlin Wall, they thought the continent’s benighted souls could no longer fall prey to the promises of Soviet versions of communism.

This disenchantment is not due to African democracy producing a feared wave of fiscally irresponsible populism, but because it hasn’t prevented a re-ignited wave of authoritarianism.

Those who have called “foul” to the winners of Zimbabwe’s nine national elections since Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe National African Union–Patriotic Front replaced Ian Smith’s minority regime in 1980 have more cause than most to complain.

Mugabe and ZANU-PF are masters of an arsenal of coercion and chicanery – and a modicum of well-manipulated consent – that is well-honed to take to the trenches come election time.

ZANU-PF’s electoral armoury, combined with the opposition’s own goals, has produced a complex and contradictory accumulation of wealth, power, and paranoia. This will be hard to crack in the tenth Zimbabwean election, due in 2018. That one may not be as easy to take as those in the past, given the ruling party’s fracturing as its ever-older leader’s powers wane. But the much splintered parties trying to take advantage of ZANU-PF’s cracks will have to get their unity act together quickly. They had also better examine ZANU-PF’s history of guaranteeing that its power doesn’t get diminished by a mere election or two conducted free of rigging by any means possible.

Furthermore, much of what has traditionally been conceived as “southern” political and ideological discourses are now overlapping with what used to be called the “north” (or the “centre” of global capitalism) as it becomes riven with inequality and the world’s marginalised enter its former centre.

Thus Trump-style demagogues take on the practices of dictators everywhere, moulding the languages of disenfranchisement and resentment into authoritarian populism. Mugabe-politics are becoming a global phenomenon. Their electoral tactics will follow.

History of election victory by any means

The Zimbabwean ruling party has a long history of election victory by methods ranging from well organised violence to ballot box stuffing to media manipulation. So too did its predecessors. The white minority regimes rigged elections by creating a myriad of justifications and variations to keep the numbers of “qualified” black African voters low.

In the late fifties and early sixties, the first black unions and nationalist parties were rent with violence. This extended from leadership selection to control over foreign funding (necessary to organise elections of any sort). And of course there were plenty of sticks, stones and firebombs when the nationalist movement split into two parties.

As nationalism started full stride in 1964 the leader of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) signed “Joshua Nkomo, Life President” to a letter to a British Secretary of State.

Seven years later, as the struggle upped the ante into full arms, ZANU’s guerrilla leader gained votes for his choice on the “war council” by standing in front of his chosen candidate and his followers duly lined up behind him. No secret ballot there.

A few years later, threatened by a group of radical youth, Mugabe persuaded the guerrilla army’s host, Mozambican president Samora Machel, to shunt its leaders into prison. Thus suitably moderate in terms of Cold War politics, the liberation party swept its way to the 1980 victory. The many complaints about intimidation – and worse – didn’t dent the British-led transitional team’s haste to wipe their hands of their embarrassing semi-colony.

With state power from 1980 to now, ZANU-PF has learned even more lessons. As Norma Kriger has chronicled, all Zimbabwe’s elections up to 2000 were rife with coercion, rarely acknowledged by academics, other observers, and important states.

The lessons learned then helped in future strategies. As Tim Scarnecchia notes, during Gukurahundi– the “spring storms” that washed away thousands of Ndebele people suspected of harbouring treasonous intent – the Zimbabwean rulers learned to keep local and global great powers on side.

The new millennium

The 2000 parliamentary election was unprecedented. ZANU-PF was challenged seriously by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), with deep roots in civil society resistance. The ruling party’s 1997 deal with the land-hungry war veterans’ association created the perfect weapon against those thought to have made an alliance with the new opposition: white farmers.

Invasions of large scale commercial farms became a new component of election strategy (not least because they housed farm workers, seen to be stoked against ZANU-PF). These were accompanied by restrictive “public order” and media legislation, along with “green bombers” in the militias helping eliminate vote-gathering challengers.

By the presidential election of 2002 the techniques included gerrymandering to add rural votes to the urban areas, which tended to support the MDC, reducing the number of polling booths in cities and snail-like processing on the election days. At the same time the gamut of alterations to the tally included restrictive registration and the usual tricks at the counting stage.

On the foreign front, the sitting South African president wrote a missive to his party that was scathingly critical of political affairs to his north. To accuse a political party of having only the “lumpen-proletariat” (the marauding war vets) as a support base is nasty indeed.

Although Thabo Mbeki told whomever was listening in Zimbabwe’s “revolutionary party” to follow the precepts of free and fair elections, his quiet diplomacy did not waver. He did in fact send a second mission to investigate the contest. But it took the Mail and Guardian newspaper years to win its court case and reveal the critical Khampepe report.

The 2005 challenge was relatively mild. But the rulers’ pique was still such that it went on a rampage to destroy thousands of informal traders’ stalls and mildly illegal housing, displacing an estimated 700,000. Operation Murambatsvina was a prime example of urbicide.

Three years later (just before Mbeki’s final deposition) the MDC almost won the “harmonised” March 2008 contest. This included cities, parliament (with a Senate, the establishment of which caused the opposition to split into two parties) and the presidential race.

The official election commission spent nearly six weeks reckoning a 47% victory for the long suffering pretenders to power. But the new constitution forced a run-off to reach the required 50% plus triumph.

Mugabe and his military took no chances: the violence they meted out was so severe that MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai abandoned the race. ZANU-PF’s victory was too hollow for their continental peers: Mbeki’s last presidential foreign policy feat was to usher in a “government of national unity”. This combined the brutal victors with the more innocent co-governors, who took up the poisoned chalice of sharing an already deeply corrupted state.

If 2008’s blend of extreme violence and regional complicity wasn’t election rigging, what could be?

By the July 2013 electoral charade, ZANU-PF had learned all the tricks. The government of national unity’s “roadmap” election reforms was never completed. When the key South African mediator Lindiwe Zulu mooted postponing the race until the field was level (or maybe advising the MDC to pull out), Mugabe told Jacob Zuma to shut the “street woman” up. The latter complied.

A sneaky Israeli election management company was hired to play sophisticated games (were there actually a million extra votes?) The voter’s roll was never published. When the race began, there were reminders of 2008.

Most tragically, unity talks among the opposition party amounted to nothing, and the main MDC seemed to implode. One usually well-informed observer claimed the MDC had not bothered to register voters. As Phillan Zamchiya put it, the match was a technical knockout.

All in all, if the Donald Trumps of the world want to find out how the masters of manufacturing elections work, they had better visit Zimbabwe before their internecine struggles close them down.

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