President Robert Mugabe on June 13, set July 31 as Zimbabwe’s election day. The chief opposition leader and current prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, flatly rejected the date and said he would challenge it in the courts. Earlier in the month the Zimbabwe constitutional court ruled that elections must be held by July 31 under the provisions of the new constitution. Meanwhile, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has postponed a planned summit in Maputo to consider a Zimbabwe road map for free and fair elections at Mugabe’s request. According to South African media, that meeting could be rescheduled for as early as June 18.
What is going on here?
Zimbabwe’s last elections, a contest principally between Robert Mugabe’s ZANU/PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC, were deeply flawed and were followed by serious violence. (Many credible observers believe that Tsvangirai’s party won the most votes.) SADC stepped in and cobbled together a government of national unity with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister. The government of national unity stabilized the country and under pressure from SADC adopted a new constitution and a package of reforms designed to preclude a repeat of 2008. The new constitution was approved in May 2013; however, many of the other associated reforms are not in place.
Broadly speaking ZANU/PF wants early elections while the opposition wants them delayed until the reform package is in place. ZANU/PF’s enemies claim that Mugabe’s party wants early elections—before all the reforms are in place—so that it can guarantee victory; through violence and intimidation if necessary. However, following the constitutional court’s latest ruling, Mugabe can now say that not to hold the elections at the end of July would be unconstitutional. There are many cross-currents. As Mugabe fades (he is eighty-nine and allegedly suffers from cancer), rivalries within ZANU/PF over succession are intensifying. Tsvangirai is not unchallenged within his own camp. Hence there is more political space now than in 2008, and the outcome of an election is less predictable, with or without widespread violence.
Elections preparations are under way, but the process is ragged and slow. Mugabe and his allies have said that foreign election observers will not be admitted to the country, raising the question of just how free, fair, and credible they plan to be. U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, Bruce Wharton, issued a statement on June 12 that strongly calls for free and fair elections, outside election observers, and emphasizes the fact that Mugabe himself is calling for peaceful elections; a change from elections past.
SADC under the leadership of South Africa has a crucial role to play. South Africa president Jacob Zuma has been deeply engaged in the search for a solution for Zimbabwe. It is difficult to see how elections could proceed at the end of July in the teeth of SADC opposition. On the other hand, it would be difficult for SADC to block elections from going forward in a sovereign member state. Nevertheless, SADC continues to insist on a Zimbabwe road map for credible elections. Mugabe asked that the SADC meeting be postponed so that he could get his house in order—presumably including a credible road map.
Given ZANU/PF history of electoral violence and Tsvangirai’s flat rejection of a July 31 date, if elections go forward as Mugabe intends, there are few positive scenarios and many negative ones. Absent the so far unimplemented reforms, the pre-electoral and electoral processes are vulnerable to rigging, violence, and intimidation. Credible voter registration and preparation of a voters’ roll will be particularly problematic. One or more opposition parties might boycott the elections, further bringing into question their legitimacy. Mugabe’s exclusion up to now of foreign election observers is not a good sign. As Tsvangirai is saying, Zimbabwe may be in for a repeat of 2008.