It is said that two things are inevitable in life: death and taxes. To these a third might be added – election victories for former southern African liberation parties. This is especially true in Zimbabwe, whose governing Zanu-PF party is steeped in the politics of entitlement. One with a brutal history whenever it is confronted by dissent and opposition.
It came as no great surprise, therefore, that it secured a resounding victory in the recent parliamentary elections, followed by a narrower but still decisive win for Emmerson Mnangagwa over Nelson Chamisa in the presidential poll. But – 50.8% to 44.3% – was suspiciously convenient, just nudging Mnangagwa past the point required to avoid a run-off contest. This was akin to the contrived result of 2008, which denied Morgan Tsvangirai the presidency by pushing him below 50%.
The standard features of Zimbabwean elections were all evident again. A slavish state media acting as praise singers for Zanu-PF, rather than as a forum for diverse opinions, the open allegiance of the security forces, and the misuse of the state apparatus for party purposes.
What was missing this time was a full-blown campaign of state intimidation and violence to ensure that voters ‘did the right thing’. The post-Robert Mugabe administration is astute enough to understand that such tactics would drive a coach and horses through its key policy objectives. These are to secure global rehabilitation, gain access to International Monetary Fund and World Bank support, and to entice investors and business back to the country.
Thus, the balancing act was to retain power while still doing enough to convince the global community that Zimbabwe was on an upward curve. The kind of approach used in previous elections could only be deployed in extreme circumstances. It posed a fundamental threat to the wider national interest, and shows how the precarious economic situation has compelled a political reappraisal within Zanu-PF about strategy and tactics.
There has been no Damascene conversion here. Mnangagwa was an architect of previous election campaigns rooted in intimidation and he has been implicated in the atrocities of the Gukurahundi.
His was merely a pragmatic recognition that less crude tactics were necessary due to the country’s untenable economic situation.
Will this strategy work? It is currently too early to say. What’s clear though is that two narratives have already begun to emerge. Mnangagwa’s is that there needs to be national unity, that he’s a centrist and pragmatist and needs the West’s support to get the country back on its feet. For his part, Chamisa has already begun to write his script: the election was rigged and Zimbabweans were robbed of a fair election.
While the Southern African Development Community and African Union monitors have approved the elections, those endorsements must be placed in their proper historical context. Both bodies have a long history of endorsing Zimbabwean elections in the face of the most egregious vote rigging and violence. And both have a structural bias towards protecting the interests of incumbents.
There is a strong ‘leaders club’ mentality in both organisations. And a ‘liberation club’ mentality remains exceptionally strong within the SADC. These organisations still lack a thorough democratic character and remain unable to translate the noble aspirations of their charters into a consistent defence of democratic principles on the ground.
For its part, the European Union was less generous. The EU was allowed to monitor a Zimbabwean election for the first time in 16 years and it highlighted structural inequalities in the electoral process, concluding that
a truly level playing field was not achieved which negatively impacted on the democratic character of the electoral environment.
One must also place explanations for any Zimbabwean election in the wider context of a dominant party state which is highly authoritarian. Zanu-PF has embedded itself in power over almost four decades. It has entrenched itself in the state and its behaviour has shown that any result defying ‘the revolution’ - that is its own defeat - is unacceptable and will be resisted with the full might of the state
In short, everything can change in Zimbabwe except the rule of the dominant party. That is the limit of its ‘reform process’. This inevitably affects the wider population, it grinds a people down, exhausts them and compels them to make their own often resigned and unhappy accommodation with a status quo which seems immovable. This is particularly so as people struggle daily to make ends meet.
People have learned what a serious challenge to Zanu-PF power actally entails, and naturally flinch from inviting such retribution on themselves. In short, there is an awareness that behind Mnangagwa’s conciliatory discourse is a steely determination never to yield power.
How should the West respond?
Western support is needed to unlock the doors to the main global financial institutions whose support Zimbabwe desperately needs to pull it from the economic abyss.
Two contrasting narratives are being spun, each seeking to shape the Zimbabwean reality for a Western audience.
Mnangagwa’s pitch is that Zimbabwe is moving on after the disasters of the Mugabe era. While the election may be acknowledged as imperfect, it’s a good start and a clear advance on previous polls. In the coming days and weeks he will suggest that, with strong external support and by fully welcoming Zimbabwe back into the family of nations, further progress is likely.
The opposition MDC-Alliance and Chamisa, by contrast, has already begun to advance a narrative that this is simply more of the same – rigged elections falling lamentably short of democratic standards. Their argument is that behind the smokescreen of soothing rhetoric is the same implacable determination by Zanu-PF to remain in power at any cost, as shown by the deadly shooting of unarmed protesters.
In short, Mnangagwa is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and Western states should hold him at arm’s length and deny him the legitimacy he craves. Saying this, of course, will open the MDC-Alliance to the familiar Zanu-PF charge that it is ‘treasonous’ and is collaborating with foreign powers and ‘imperialist forces’.
Which of these proves to be the more compelling narrative will turn on whether Western states insist on full respect for the democratic process, and on certain democratic benchmarks as being non-negotiable; or whether they will view Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF as the only game in town and deal with them, albeit reluctantly.
In that event, like the Zimbabwean population, they too will have been worn down by the attritional politics of Zanu-PF.