Commonwealth expert, Dr Sue Onslow teases out the challenges created by Zimbabwe’s ‘harmonised’ elections and the awkward questions they pose for the organisation.

The announcement of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s victory in the 2018 Zimbabwe elections – winning by a supposed margin of 50.8 per cent to Nelson Chamisa’s 44 per cent – removes the need for a presidential run-off vote on 8 September. Described as ‘a disputed crown for the crocodile’ by Africa Confidential, a number of questions remain around the legitimacy of the Zimbabwean harmonised elections. And these pose awkward questions for the Commonwealth.

Zimbabwe has long been important to the moral purpose of the Commonwealth, dating back to pre-independence. Commonwealth diplomacy was a key enabler of the final transition to independence in 1980 (see Lusaka heads’ meeting and Ramphal’s ‘outer diplomacy’). Indeed, the organisation was a pioneer in election observation in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in February – March 1980, which has now developed into a veritable international industry.

It was another Commonwealth election observation report sternly criticising Zimbabwe’s 2003 election campaign that triggered the accelerating confrontation between President Robert Mugabe and the international organisation. The diplomatic failure of the ‘troika’ of Commonwealth heads Thabo Mbeki/Olusegun Obasango/John Howard, despite last-minute lobbying by ‘P J’ Patterson, and Robert Mugabe’s defiant departure from the Commonwealth in December 2003, is etched forever in the memory of many Commonwealth watchers.

Emphasis on respect for established procedures
Understandably, the accelerating ‘diplomatic dance’ of Zimbabwe’s reengagement with the Commonwealth, following last November’s ‘non-coup’, has been managed with considerable caution. The emphasis has rightly been on respect for established procedures under the 2007 Patterson ‘rules’. When Mnangagwa publicly stated that the Commonwealth ‘could send observers if it wanted’ in time for the 2018 campaign, he was reminded that Zimbabwe must first formally apply to rejoin. A letter was dispatched on 9 May, nearly a month after Foreign Minister S B Moyo’s charm offensive at April’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

The lack of high-level Commonwealth organisational links put the Secretariat’s advance administrative support team at a distinct disadvantage when they arrived in the country in June. It quickly became clear that any idea of using the 2003 election observation group’s report as a starting point was woefully out of date. Officials were on a steep learning curve and fortunately for them, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum has maintained an office in Harare, staffed by Zimbabweans, since 2003.

This caution contrasts with British ambassador Catriona Laing’s public support, seemingly enthusiastically backed by the former foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, for President Mnangagwa. She arrived in Harare in September 2014 with instructions to improve the lamentable state of British-Zimbabwean relations.

However, in the view of many opposition spokespersons in Harare, she greatly exceeded her brief and has been accused of actively ‘meddling’ in Zimbabwean politics, and adopting a highly partisan public stance, such as wearing ‘that scarf’ on the steps of No. 10 Downing Street (see Africa Confidential). Laing has made no secret of her preference for the ‘ZANU-PF stability’ narrative, to confront Zimbabwe’s profound structural economic problems – the responsibility for which lies overwhelmingly at the door of ZANU-PF’s own policies and licensed rampant corruption.

‘Insidious pressures of past intimidation palpable for election observers’
The reality confronting the 43 Commonwealth election observers who arrived in the country on 23 July was complex, and the insidious pressures of past intimidation palpable. Although political activists and commentators acknowledged the remarkable opening up of political space across the country after last November’s ‘non-coup’ – to the extent that opposition parties could campaign in the previous ZANU-PF rural heartlands of Mashonaland, Midlands and Masvingo – there were hopes that the multiple domestic NGOs and international observers would help keep the campaign ‘clean’. Zimbabweans also hoped the election observers would act as a vital break on any temptation of army intervention or a security crackdown afterwards.

A common misperception about Commonwealth observer groups (COGs) is that they can deliver ‘the correct result’. Instead, their remit is to evaluate the electoral process and assess whether election campaigns conform to established rules and Commonwealth good practice. The COG could do nothing about the dispatch of thousands of ZANU-PF ‘political commissars’ to the rural areas since last November; merely note a demonstrable pattern of ZDF soldiers’ ‘visits’ (Zimbabwean lawyer David Coltart MP on Radio 4 Today) to rural communities in opposition areas, with no discernible purpose; point to the vast discrepancy between ZANU-PF’s electioneering funds (reportedly funded by oil sales) and other cash-starved political parties; report on the ZANU-PF usage of police at election rallies and pattern of using government helicopters in national campaigning, as well as the time-honoured electioneering lorry loads of tee shirts and food handouts.

The remarkably small number of female political candidates in these harmonised elections contrasts sharply with the Commonwealth’s current rhetoric on women’s rights. This has been a remarkably peaceable campaign in the lead up to the poll compared to the horrors of 2003, and particularly the 2008 election campaigns and their brutal aftermath. But the memory of past violence still acts as a brake on people’s behavior. In addition to the attack on Mnangagwa and other ZANU-PF officials at an election rally, some journalists and their families have faced intimidation, and political debates disrupted. According to Afrobarometer, 30 percent of rural voters believe that, despite the supposed secrecy of the ballot box, ‘powerful people’ will be able to find out how they voted.

As the Commonwealth election observers’ report confirmed, other structural limitations persist around the media. ZBC remains a state broadcasting rather than a public service broadcasting body, ensuring ZANU-PF dominated TV coverage. A SABC report highlights that in an hour-long broadcast on 29 July, opposition parties merited 15 minutes coverage, while MDC Alliance received a mere two and a half minutes. IstTV, Zimbabwe’s only independent television broadcaster, uses the Facebook platform. As a recent Afrobarometer poll pointed out, most rural voters received their information on the election and party manifestos via government-sponsored local radio and traditional leaders.

Brutal wake-up call for Zimbabwe’s transition to a mature democracy
During the campaign public debates raged around ZEC’s management of the new Biometric Voters Registration (BVR) voters’ roll and its last-minute publication, with accusations of significant anomalies and ‘ghost voters’; the printing and distribution of ballot papers, as well as their controversial design, which transgressed ZEC’s own rules (see McDonald Lewanika).

So, it was not a ‘squeaky clean’ election campaign. The aftermath has been a brutal wake-up call for the problems besetting Zimbabwe and its transition to a mature African democracy. The Zimbabwe Election Commission, and its controversial chair, Justice Priscilla Chigumba, were certainly found wanting, most significantly in the delayed communication of results which stoked doubts and tensions around the veracity of the harmonised election outcome.

The MDC Alliance ratcheted up the pressure by swiftly claiming victory, based on its own collation of published results outside more than 10,000 polling stations. Jubilant supporters began dancing in the streets of Harare. In its determination to maintain a wave of confidence, MDC Alliance certainly heightened people’s expectations, on top of the frustrations of day-to-day living, ZEC’s stolid silence and the Harare rumour mill. But, as one wise tweet commented, ‘You cannot ride a rocking horse to State House.’

How the election has been handled and the willingness of all parties to abide by the outcome – not just the result itself – are crucial to Zimbabwe’s bid to re-join the Commonwealth, and its successful re-engagement with the international community. The army’s crackdown on 1 August  poses a considerable challenge to the Commonwealth, in the immediate and longer term.

The indiscriminate brutality against demonstrators and innocent bystanders has done potentially irreparable damage to Mnangagwa’s painstakingly constructed narrative of peaceful reconciliation and reform.

At the time of writing, an uneasy peace has returned to the streets, with a prominent army and police presence in Harare, Bulawayo and Gweru, while the MDC Alliance stoutly declares its intention to challenge the presidential results through the courts.

Commonwealth watchers appreciate that the systemic challenges in Zimbabwe are profound and go far beyond the accelerating economic problems: a crisis of faith in the judiciary, and engrained distrust in social institutions, exacerbated by ZEC’s perceived partiality and lack of transparency. For any reform in Zimbabwe to be meaningful, it must include security sector reform. Yet the army is demonstrably the ultimate powerbroker/king-maker, seen in the swift removal of riot police and support units on Wednesday, and the belated invocation of the Public Order and Security Act (after the event). Already a warning has come from an influential American election observer that the army’s violent behavior will have a disastrous influence on Congress’ review of US sanctions and Washington’s willingness to agree to IMF support for debt restructuring (Africa Confidential, 3 August 2018).

Commonwealth: election observer or tourist?
The COG’s report will form the basis of Secretary General Patricia Scotland’s assessment to be sent to Commonwealth heads of government on whether Zimbabwe has complied sufficiently with agreed standards of good governance, and can be invited to re-join. It is likely that it will have done just enough – notwithstanding the army’s extra-judicial killings of six unarmed demonstrators and innocent bystanders, and severe beatings inflicted on many others.

But the Commonwealth and its Secretariat should ask itself some searching questions around the relatively short time that advance teams and the COGs spend in country. Despite active collaboration with other observer teams (most notably the 140-member EU group that was in Zimbabwe weeks before the poll), the Commonwealth risked being hi-jacked to rubber stamp an election process in the run-up to the vote.

Notwithstanding the strong condemnation of Wednesday’s violence by the COG head, former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama, for many Zimbabweans their swift departure after the announcement of the presidential result invites Peter Godwin’s damning comment –­ ‘election tourists, not election observers’.

Despite the declared strengthened remit of Commonwealth election observation at the London summit, if it comes down to perennially straitened resources, should the Commonwealth still be in the international business of election observation at all?

Sue OnslowDr Sue Onslow is a senior lecturer and deputy director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has written widely on British foreign policy and decolonisation, and southern Africa in the Cold War era. Her latest publication is the co-written biography, Robert Mugabe (Ohio Short Histories of Africa).