We didn’t know results of Zimbabwe’s Wednesday national elections, but it was clear from the first unofficial reports that it was going to be a huge victory for Robert Mugabe and the ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front), as every ‘election’ has been in the 33 years since Zimbabwe won majority rule and independence from the United Kingdom.
That’s exactly what the Zimbabwe Election Commission has reported over the weekend: Mugabe has defeated Morgan Tsvangirai, the country’s prime minister and leader of the opposition MDC-T (Movement for Democratic Change) by a margin of 61% to 34%, with Welshman Ncube in third place with 2.7%. In addition, the ZANU-PF has won 159 seats in the 210-member House of Assembly, the lower house of Zimbabwe’s parliament, to just 51 for the MDC-T. That’s a loss of 49 seats for the MDC-T over the last parliament, and a gain of 59 for the ZANU-PF, giving Mugabe’s party the two-thirds majority it needs to amend Zimbabwe’s newly adopted constitution.
Tsvangirai and the MDC-T have rejected the results as a ‘huge farce’ amid plenty of reason to doubt the election’s fairness, but there are also reasons to believe that Tsvangirai made key strategic blunders that will leave him on the sidelines of Zimbabwean policymaking as the country turns to the question of who might ultimately succeed Mugabe. It is that ‘election’ — an election with an incredibly small coterie of voters — that will ultimately matter more to Zimbabwe, no matter how rigged Wednesday’s vote.
The local Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) on Friday pointed to massive problems with the registration of urban voters, in particular: while nearly 100% of rural voters made it onto voter rolls for Wednesday’s election, urban voter rolls fell short by about 760,000 voters (or just two-thirds of urban voters). The MDC-T further charges that nearly 800,000 voters were turned away at polling stations on Wednesday, to say nothing of the ZANU-PF’s dominance of state media and claims of intimidation and sporadic violence throughout the country. Neither opposition nor observers have yet to see the voter rolls, either in physical or electronic form.
Though turnout from the March 2008 election increased from around 2.50 million voters to 3.48 million, Mugabe essentially netted the entirety of those additional million voters — Tsvangirai polled around 23,000 votes less than during the first round of the 2008 election, while Mugabe gained about 1.03 million votes on his 2008 effort. In Matabeleland South, the southwestern region that’s home to most of Zimbabwe’s Ndebele people (around 15% of Zimbabwe’s population, in contrast to the 70% that belong to the Shona ethnicity), the ZANU-PF won all 13 seats. That’s particularly strange because it has been an especially fertile opposition region since the 1980s when Mugabe launched a scorched-earth campaign against the region during his fight to eradicate the ZANU’s only remaining pre-independence force, the ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union). One of the election commissioners, Mkhululi Nyathi, has already resigned in protest over the vote.
U.S. and European election officials weren’t permitted to observe the election, though they have raised concerns over the vote’s fairness and U.S. secretary of state John Kerry said in a statement that the United States doesn’t believe the vote was a ‘credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people.’ But the African Union, which did observe the elections, declared they were ‘free, honest and credible.’ While the Southern African Development Community reported they were ‘free and peaceful,’ it will report later as to whether the vote is fair. But South African president Jacob Zuma has already congratulated Mugabe and urged the opposition to accept the outcome, and it’s been long clear that South Africa and other regional players have no interest in taking the lead to nudge Mugabe out of office, partly due to his historic role in liberating Zimbabwe from minority-rule in 1979 and 1980.
ZANU-PF’s two-thirds majority in the House of Assembly is vital because it allows Mugabe to dismantle the kinds of reform institutions that the new constitution, supported by both Mugabe and the MDC-T, and approved in a March referendum with 94.5% of the vote. Those reforms include the limitation of executive power, the ability to appoint senators, provincial governors or the commission that oversees judicial appointments, as well as fairer access to state media and the establishment of a new electoral body for oversight. Many of those reforms haven’t even been fully enacted, however, which means that they may simply be amended away in the fullness of time.
But the resignation in Tsvangirai’s initial reaction to the election results belie the fact that Mugabe may have had a credible shot against Tsvangirai, even in the fairest of fights. There is a sense that Mugabe is genuinely more popular today than at the time of the last election in March 2008, when the country’s economic crisis had morphed into a humanitarian crisis featuring food shortages, massive hyperinflation and the beginnings of what would become a cholera epidemic. It also seems clear that, is less popular than in March 2008, when Tsvangirai outpolled Mugabe in the first round of the presidential vote. Tsvangirai, who ultimately became prime minister in an internationally brokered power sharing deal, has had to bear the worst of both worlds — he’s now been tied to the corruption of the Mugabe government, but he’s also been essentially powerless to effect the real change that he has campaigned for since the late 1990s.
But Tsvangirai has failed at using what real power he had to build the MDC’s position. Take a moment to put aside whether you think the vote was rigged or not — in either situation, Tsvangirai has been outflanked. If the vote was free and fair, it was a decisive electoral blow to his movement; but even if the vote was rigged, why in the world did Tsvangirai agree to such a hasty July 31 date in the first place? Why not boycott? Critics argue that it’s part of a long line of strategic miscalculations that Tsvangirai has made, including his decision not to contest the second round of the 2008 presidential election.
The line that’s been repeated by Mugabe’s supporters and somewhat sheepish observers is that the election, at least, has been mostly peaceful. It’s true that Mugabe has so far refrained from widespread violence, though there have been plenty of reports that the government and military have intimidated rural voters into supporting ZANU-PF, sometimes with force. Tsvangirai’s muted response so far is also likely due to memories of the 2008 election, when the opposition’s enthusiasm prompted a crackdown that led to over 200 deaths and thousands of injuries.
In some ways, it was less a victory for Mugabe than a victory for the ZANU-PF party apparatus and, especially, the military and security forces surrounding the 89-year-old Mugabe, who now have at least five years to determine a suitable plan of succession for the post-Mugabe era Mugabe, who was born the year that the Kellogg-Briand Pact was signed, cannot live forever, and despite hints of declining health, he can still be spry and charming. For example, in an interview with the must-follow Lydia Polgreen of The New York Times on Monday, Mugabe deadpanned, ‘Why do you want to know my secrets?’ when asked if he planned to stand for another term in 2018 (when he’ll be 94) and added, when Polgreen asked how he would spend his time if he lost, ‘You are asking a man of 89 years how he spends his time?’
Tsvangirai might have once been acceptable as a possible successor to Mugabe, but it’s become clear that Zimbabwe’s inner circle of power-brokers simply don’t believe Tsvangirai can be sufficiently trusted (co-opted?). But whatever limited power Tsvangirai enjoyed in the past five years through the power-sharing agreement will now evaporate. It is equally clear that the legal and judicial avenues that Tsvangirai can pursue are limited.
Under the current constitution, if Mugabe retires, becomes incapacitated or dies in office, ZANU-PF will choose his successor. But Furthermore, the ZANU-PF is already stricken with division, with one faction led by vice president Joice Mujuru and another by defence minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, and the strongest voice of all in Mugabe’s inner circle comes from the military, which will certainly want to impose its input on such an important choice.
It’s also an important turning point for an opposition whose chief figure has been Tsvangirai for nearly half of Mugabe’s 33-year reign. Having now lost three consecutive presidential elections, it may be a good time for Tsvangirai himself to stand aside and take a mentorship role to other figures, such as the 46-year-old Tendai Biti, a co-founder of the MDC in 1999 who currently serves as the MDC-T secretary-general of the MDC-T. Biti has also been Zimbabwe’s finance minister since 2009 under the power-sharing agreement, and he narrowly appears to have won narrow reelection to the House of Assembly from his constituency in Harare, the capital. Biti was crucial to the decision to abandon Zimbabwe’s dollar and to introduce the U.S. dollar (and South African rand) as the country’s chief currency.
It may also be an opportunity for the two competing factions of the MDC to reunite — a smaller branch broke from the mainstream MDC-T in 2005 over a strategic decision to contest the first-ever senatorial elections that year after Mugabe decided to introduce an upper house to Zimbabwe’s parliament. The competing MDC is led by Ncube, who also served Tsvangirai’s government as minister of industry and commerce, and who contested the presidency alongside Mugabe, Tsvangirai and two others.