An election observer who has witnessed every Zimbabwean election since independence in 1980, narrates his experience of the 2023 elections.
I have been present at Zimbabwean elections since 1980. The independence elections of that year followed intense negotiations first in Lusaka, Zambia, and then in London over the latter part of 1979. These had themselves followed a ferocious war of liberation fought against the minority white regime by two guerrilla armies, themselves representing banned black political parties. The party led by Robert Mugabe, ZANU-PF, which had fielded a large combat force with Chinese training, won those elections and formed the first black majority government in what had been Rhodesia, now renamed Zimbabwe.
I was an official observer throughout the election campaign, January to March 1980, deployed by the Commonwealth Secretariat, and was present at all but two of the subsequent elections in a private capacity. But there had been no national election observation anywhere before, so what we ‘made up’ as methodology in 1980 became, I suppose, the equivalent of election observation gospel.
I say this because I sought to enter Zimbabwe on the eve of this year’s elections, and was detained at the airport, then deported. So this critical account is being written from neighbouring Zambia. I say this by way of making it clear that while some may accuse me of personal grievance in my judgements, I do think my criticisms are accurate. I will leave it to readers to judge.
Not all elections were contentious
Although Zimbabwean politics were difficult from shortly after independence, its habit of regular elections provoked no great international criticism until the turn of the century. The volatility of the country was, however, apparent in the carefully hidden pogroms conducted from 1982 to 1987 against imagined dissidents in the heartland of Mugabe’s rival liberation leader, Joshua Nkomo. Mugabe, in an early show of paranoia against challenge, thought he saw veterans of Nkomo’s guerrilla army – which had operated in the west of the country – once again taking up arms, this time not against white rule but against him. Tens of thousands of innocent people were killed by Mugabe’s forces but, amazingly, the elections of 1985 passed without controversy.
At the 1990 elections, Mugabe was challenged by an old comrade-in-arms, Edgar Tekere, and his fledgling ZUM party. It was not a well-organised challenge, and there was much localised violence directed against Tekere’s people – but many may have regarded Mugabe’s heavy-handedness against the strong sense that he was still widely regarded as the deliverer of majority rule. He won the election handsomely.
Mugabe won the 1985 elections despite the financial difficulties of the early 1980s. A decade later, these economic difficulties became greatly compounded in 1997 by the pension demands of guerrilla veterans from Mugabe’s own army, and his ill-advised decision to enter the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, he and his commanders learned for the first time just how much wealth could be gained by simple plunder. Later they would apply this lesson at home.
And it was at home precisely that ordinary citizens were beginning to feel the economic pinch; a new opposition party built on nationwide trade union links appeared, led by Morgan Tsvangirai. For the first time Mugabe faced an election challenge against a fully organised and formidable foe. Mugabe called a referendum in 2000 to grant himself greater powers and was defeated by Tsvangirai. Mugabe instantly went into unplanned and extemporaneous panic mode. In reply, and as an attempt to complete and reforge his nationalist leadership credentials, he launched the farm invasions that lasted for some years and led to the utter collapse of Zimbabwe’s backbone agri-industrial export sector.
In what had become an economic wasteland, what with world-record hyper-inflation, he faced Tsvangirai in the 2008 elections. Realising the voting trends showed certain defeat, he authorised the first full scale national election rig. In the end, and to ensure a modicum of stability in the neighbouring country, South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki negotiated a coalition government. Mugabe remained president and Tsvangirai had to be content with the role of a circumscribed prime ministership.
ZANU-PF now knew the power of rigging and the efficacy of violence or even the threat of violence. It won in 2013. But it was clear, even to ZANU-PF, that the by now octogenarian Mugabe was again losing control of the economy, which, it can be argued, had been rescued by Tsvangirai’s people in the coalition government. Mugabe was overthrown a few years later in a coup engineered by his own people. Emmerson Mnangagwa became president, won an election in 2018, using both rigging and violence – circumscribed but clearly deployed – against Tsvangirai’s successor, the youthful Nelson Chamisa.
In 2023, with the return of hyper-inflation and a litany of failed economic policies, and amidst great corruption by members of a now oligarchic ruling party, Mnangagwa and Chamisa faced off again. The election was held on 23 August. I sought to enter the country and was deported on the morning of 21 August.
The elections of 2023
Aware that Chamisa had gained much international attention, and that the elections were being closely monitored by surrounding African states – Zambia and South Africa, north and South of Zimbabwe, were functioning democracies – ZANU-PF engineered several new forms of electoral control as well as upscaling some old ones. These were in addition to highly slanted news coverage in the government press and the vast difference in funding available to the government on the one hand and the opposition on the other. I itemise in summary form 12 key ‘projects’ to ensure an election that ran against the interests of the opposition. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, in addition, made no efforts towards facilitation of a balanced contest, and seemed itself to be part of the machinery to suppress opposition chances, along with the courts of Zimbabwe.
1. Voters rolls were late, often incorrect, and the opposition never received a full roll.
2. Very high candidate fees were imposed, meaning a candidate for any elected position had to have resources. It made life very difficult for minority parties hoping to field candidates for several parliamentary seats.
3. Candidatures were invalidated by the courts on minor technicalities. Although the CCC on appeal had 12 candidates reinstated in seats where it had historical strength, another opposition party had 87 candidatures legally invalidated and had to abandon the election.
4. CCC rallies, especially as the contest began, were regularly cancelled by the police, again on technical health and safety grounds.
5. The government issued almost dire warnings to the international observer groups it had had no choice but to accept about keeping to a narrow interpretation of what observation meant. Thankfully, the observer groups had enough international weight to observe as they wanted,
6. Individuals who were not part of official observer groups were deported or refused entry. These included Chris Maroleng of the research and advocacy group, Good Governance Africa, and myself who represented no group at all.
7. Exemplary violence was deployed against voters in regions not visited by observers, but even voters on the observation itineraries were subjected to threats of violence.
8. Government rallies featured what would elsewhere be regarded as efforts at bribery, what became known as the ‘chicken and chips’ feature of ZANU-PF rallies, and fertiliser to farmers in the rural areas.
9. Especially in CCC urban strongholds, polling stations opened many hours late presumably in the hope that voters in the long queues would run out of patience and go away. In the end, voting had to be extended – in some cases by an entire additional day. The aim had been to diminish voting strength for the opposition but also – as with having to fight court challenges – to sap overall morale. Even if CCC strongholds remained parliamentary seats for the CCC, the aim was to diminish Chamisa’s presidential vote.
10. So-called ‘exit pollsters’ were present outside polling stations with a clear mission to impose a sense of intimidation and a ‘big brother is watching you’ sense of dread.
11. At an early stage, squadrons of armed riot police were visible in the big cities, traditional opposition strongholds. Again, the effect was to deter voters with the threat of a tear gas melee.
12. Ongoing at the time of writing, the official Electoral Commission count for the presidential contest differed from the figures obtained by the opposition’s Parallel Vote Tabulation carried out at polling stations throughout the country.
Altogether deliberate and targeted Electoral Commission ‘ineptitude’ – illegalities and technicalities, plus briberies and threats of violence – marked the election. These abuses were called out by observers, notably those of the Southern African Development Community led by former Zambian Vice President, Dr Nevers Mumba, who came under sustained abuse for his findings and critical judgement that the election had not been free and fair.
I concur with this finding. Given the severely compromised ‘process’ no verdict even of a ‘plausible’ victory was available, as plausibility could only be tested by victory under clean circumstances. The election was neither free nor fair; it was kept relatively peaceful, but not within a credible process.
Meanwhile I am being constantly approached by almost gloating Zambians, long looked down upon by seemingly ‘superior’ Zimbabweans. Zambia is sorting its economic problems and, as my well-wishers say, “we at least know how to run free and fair elections with gracious losers and generous victors”. In Zimbabwe, the ruling ZANU-PF simply wants victory, power, and access to looted funds – even at the expense of reputation and national pride.
Stephen Chan is Professor of World Politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London. He is the author of Kaunda and Southern Africa (Bloomsbury, 2021).