Déjà Vu in Zimbabwe

31 July 2013, 0150 EDT

Polling stations are opening in Zimbabwe, and, if one’s Facebook feed is to be believed, some enthusiastic voters have already spent a few hours queueing (and winter mornings in Zimbabwe are *cold*). Today’s elections are notable for a few reasons: they’re the first elections since extensive state-sponsored violence in 2008; they mark the formal end of the coalition government inaugurated in the aftermath of that violence; and they are the first elections to occur under a brand-spanking-new constitution.  Comparisons to Kenya’s March elections have flown fast and furious.

So what’s new?  Very little.  Indeed, elections in Zimbabwe seem to have taken on an almost eerily repetitive quality.  Once again, opposition leader and former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai is facing off against Robert Mugabe, now 89 and with 33 years in power under his belt (as well as some great quotes).  Once again, the ruling party, ZANU-PF, has instituted a campaign of violence and intimidation against opposition activists and office-holders. Once again, there is evidence of planned electoral manipulation.  Concerns center on the flawed voter registration exercise, which may have left hundreds of thousands of ghost voters on the voting rolls.  And once again, conversation within Zimbabwe tends to find its way back to the interminable Mnangagwa-Mujuru succession struggle within ZANU-PF, now over a decade old.

International news coverage does much to reinforce the profound sense of déjà vu. I challenge readers to find substantial differences between the articles printed yesterday and those printed prior to the 2008, the 2005, or the 2002 elections.   Narratives remain centered on Mugabe, and, once again, there is a simplified struggle between the people’s will and ZANU-PF’s ability to manipulate and intimidate.  I’ve always felt this narrative downplayed the very real (though eroding) support Mugabe has in the country, and, more problematically, it makes Mugabe far too central a figure in what was never a highly personalized regime. But journalists are right: ZANU-PF’s sustained and uncompromising desire to hold onto onto power remains the real story here.

But let me get a few predictions in under the wire.

Will the election be free and fair?  No — but the voting will be free from violence. The signing of the 2009 Global Political Agreement between ZANU-PF and the two MDC factions led to a power-sharing government, but it did not lead to the end of state-sponsored violence, intimidation, or harassment of opposition. Several MDC office-holders have been abducted or held in prison on questionable charges, as have journalists and civil society activists. In recent years, ZANU-PF-linked militia Chipangano has been responsible for increasing violence within Harare.  Put simply, the power-sharing government has not served as a constraint on the ruling party’s violations of the rule of law.

But there is little to be gained from violence.  Observers from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are in-country, and the ruling party desperately needs to retain its dwindling support within SADC.  Ballot stuffing will also be difficult for ZANU-PF.  In 2008, the MDC and civil society organizations organized a parallel vote tabulation, conducted largely via cellphone cameras, that ensured the integrity of polling station results.  This will likely be repeated.

Further, ZANU-PF has good reason to feel confident about winning the election without violence and obvious ballot-stuffing.  The party rammed through an early election date over MDC opposition and with insufficient time to pass the legislation necessary to guarantee the new constitution’s provisions and protections.  This has led to an electoral commission that is already deeply compromised, as well as a disastrously hurried and flawed registration process.  A chaotic “special vote” for the country’s security forces two weeks ago reinforced fears of large-scale election irregularities.  Continued ZANU-PF control over the media and over the electoral commission constitute a heavy thumb on the scale.

If Mugabe wins, does that mean the election was stolen?  No — but manipulation may play a deciding role if results are as close as they have been in the past (or as they have been in Kenya).  We know that popular support has been softening for ZANU-PF progressively over the past decade, and it’s likely that that softening has accelerated since 2008.  But the MDC’s ability to win votes — and, more importantly, its ability to motivate its supporters to vote — is also questionable.  Polls earlier this year, though flawed, suggested a softening of partisanship in Zimbabwe. More importantly, Tsvangirai’s faction of the MDC hasn’t maintained the impressive party machinery that characterized the early 2000s. The 2006 factional split weakened the party, and rural structures were decimated by the 2008 violence. During the power-sharing years, seasoned party staffers left the party HQ for ministries and the Prime Minister’s office. When I was in Zimbabwe last summer, many complained of the MDC’s lack of responsiveness and seeming loss of interest in the grassroots. If MDC party structures have eroded further since 2008, it’s hard to imagine them being able to deliver big campaign dividends.  So should we assume a clear MDC win?  No way.  It’s possible, but it’s in no way a slum-dunk.

Will there be post-election violence?  Violence might occur following one of two scenarios: (1) ZANU-PF wins, and the opposition objects. One might dub this the Kenya 2007 scenario.  This seems unlikely, especially as the opposition vote will be split between two MDC candidates. (2) A remote though more likely scenario would be close to Zimbabwe’s 2008 outcome. ZANU-PF doesn’t win, and the military refuses to accept the electoral defeat.  Power within ZANU-PF  started to shift strongly in favor the military chiefs in the Joint Operation Command in the mid-2000s, and the JOC likely engineered the large-scale violence that occurred between Zimbabwe’s initial elections and the presidential run-off election in 2008.  Has the power-sharing government eroded the power of Zimbabwe’s military chiefs?  Unclear.

Another presidential run-off is a real possibility, and forces within the military may be tempted to act as they did in 2008.  But I can’t imagine this occurring, and post-election violence — rather than some kind of accommodation — seems unlikely to me. Since 2008, schools and hospitals have reopened, dollarization has stabilized the economy, and business is booming.  Power-sharing has reaped benefits for ordinary Zimbabweans and the ruling class alike.  Violence isn’t the best option for anyone in Zimbabwe.  Even the military would likely prefer another period of uncomfortable power-sharing.