For an entire generation in the West, the name ‘Zimbabwe’ will be synonymous with hyperinflation, economic turmoil and fraudulent elections. The economic implosion that has characterised Mugabe’s 33 years of despotic and ruthless administration is almost without equal in the post-war era. The elections this week may well be the last election ever contested by Robert Mugabe and with it, the last chance he has to redeem his Presidency.
The record of the Mugabe government in the run up to the election has been mixed. On the one hand, there are a few reasons to be positive about the election. The Economist noted that electoral related violence has not spiked in the run up to this election. Indeed, the violence has continued to decline to one of the lowest levels of Mugabe’s rule in more than a decade. A new constitutional was also approved in a cross-party agreement that limited the powers of the President and unequivocally created a two-term limit for the President (similar to the USA, though a similar law in Belarus proved less enduring). Moreover, voting in polling booths was (in the words of an African Union monitor) conducted in a “peaceful, orderly and free and fair” manner. Far from the deserted voting booths that characterised the UK’s recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections, voting booths in Zimbabwe were so overcrowded that voting hours were extended to reflect higher than expected turnout. Outside many voting booths, hot drinks vendors sold tea and coffee to queuing voters, showing that even in one of the most extreme state-controlled economies in the world, some entrepreneurial zeal remains.
Nevertheless, it would take a very naïve mind to claim that the election has been transparent and fair. Whilst it is true that there has been little violence compared to previous elections, accusations of fraud and maladministration remains rife.
Rural Zimbabwean areas (ZANU-PF strongholds in which Mugabe retains strong support even without intimidation) have a registration rate of an astonishing 99.97%, whereas urban Zimbabwean constituencies (in which Mugabe and ZANU-PF face considerable electoral dissent and resistance) has a registration rate of just 67.9%. The electoral voting roll increasing from 5.2 million voters to 6.2 million voters in five years, though Mugabe-leaning districts recorded larger increases than traditionally hostile constituencies. There were many other voting irregularities (though by now in Mugabe’s Presidency they have become pretty regular!) were also reported in both rural and urban areas. In rural parts of the Masvingo province many people were reportedly “assisted” to cast their vote for ZANU-PF. On the election day itself, many voters were also turned away from polling stations for a variety of reasons (such as not being on the voting role) though disproportionately in urban areas.
Moreover, the names on the voters roll remained concealed from the public, other parties and observers. As a result, it has come to light during the election that a large portion of the voter roll is corrupted, with many thousands (up to two million) dead voters and 100,000 allegedly aged over 100 years old (more than 40 times the proportion of the UK population aged over 100 years old despite Zimbabwe’s life expectancy of just 51). It does not take a cynical person to expect that many of these dead voters managed to make it to the polling booth. ZANU-PF have claimed that such administrative errors are due to poor resources. The fact that the voter roll was concealed until the day before the election is less easy to explain. The chief observer from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Bernard Membe, criticised the Mugabe government for this, claiming that the release of the voter roll was delayed far longer than it needed to be. Even if the list has not been purposefully corrupted in order to boost Mugabe’s chances to be elected, it has been updated and maintained very ineptly and opens up the potential for abuse.
In any case, a dictatorial regime that has lasted for more than three decades does not compose a single individual. Even if Mugabe lost the election and peacefully conceded the Presidency, a substantial number of individuals sympathetic to Mugabe’s aims would remain in positions of power, particularly in the military. It is the responsibility of the African Union and SADC to hold them to account.
And what if the election is widely believed to be fraudulent? Will there be an Arab Spring-style uprising? There are many reasons to believe that a wide-spread revolution is unlikely. The Zimbabwe population has been brutalised across many decades, Mugabe commands the sincere support of a significant number of Zimbabweans and (most significantly) access to the internet and social media use is not as prevalent as the Arab world. Nevertheless, the Mugabe’s Presidency must end someday, and as the world’s oldest dictator’s 90th birthday approaches, it is unlikely that he will live to see another election.