Assessing the 2008 Zimbabwean Elections

By Hamill, James; Hoffman, John | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Assessing the 2008 Zimbabwean Elections


Hamill, James, Hoffman, John, Contemporary Review


A roller coaster ... a precipice ... Zimbabwe on a razor edge: just some of the metaphors describing the 2008 election of delays. The elections were held against the backdrop of complete economic disintegration with Zimbabwe suffering from the world's highest inflation rate (the official rate at the time of writing stands at around 2.2 million per cent rendering the Zimbabwean dollar worthless), chronic shortages of food and fuel, 80 per cent unemployment and an HIV/AIDS epidemic that has contributed to a steep decline in life expectancy. People survive in part through remittances sent by the four million Zimbabweans who have fled the country.

The Background to the Elections

The expectation in the lead-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections on 29th March was that Zimbabwe would witness another election typical of the late Mugabe period, namely, one characterised by the now familiar blend of state intimidation, the sub-contracting of violence to party 'militias' and wholesale electoral fraud. The latter at least was rendered more difficult to achieve by the concessions wrested from the ZANU-PF regime in late 2007 by Thabo Mbeki, the President of South Africa, acting in his capacity as the region's mediator in the negotiations between the ruling ZANU-PF and its opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It is true that the talks eventually collapsed, with the ruling party refusing to implement an agreed new constitution or abrogate repressive media laws. It then unilaterally announced a date for the election but, interestingly, it did not formally repudiate the concessions it had made on the actual mechanics of the voting process. The MDC was concerned lest it should once again fall victim to the familiar syndrome of 'winning the vote but losing the count' and the concessions made by the regime at the negotiations made this less likely, although hardly impossible.

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's President, has been in power since independence in 1980, first as Prime Minister and since 1987, when the position of Prime Minister was abolished, as President. Mugabe, who is now 84, has been accusing the West of sabotaging Zimbabwe's economy (with its so-called 'smart' sanctions) and rejecting allegations that he had rigged earlier elections in 2002. He had been prevented from postponing the elections for two years, and even prominent members of his own ZANU-PF party had sought unsuccessfully to persuade him to retire. He and the party were shocked when about a month before the election a former cabinet minister, Simba Makoni, put his name forward as one of the presidential candidates. Makoni's candidacy has been the subject of some conjecture among Zimbabwe watchers with opinion divided as to whether this was a genuine break with Mugabe, one symptomatic of wider convulsions within the ruling party which would damage him at the ballot box, or whether it was a ZANU-PF approved operation to draw votes away from the MDC candidate Morgan Tsvangirai.

Parliamentary Elections

The shift of electoral power (one of the concessions from the Mbeki negotiations) from the Registrar General's Office to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) seemed to ZANU-PF to be a move without risk. After all, they had appointed the commission themselves and George Chiweshe, the chairman, was a reliable party loyalist. In fact the commission insisted on the counting taking place and results being posted at the individual polling stations. This enabled the MDC to photograph the returns and so have an independent tally of the results thus making vote rigging a much more problematic enterprise. The electoral commission was apparently told to give Mugabe an outright victory but it pointed out that with the counting taking place at the individual polling stations this was not possible. The posting of tallies at polling stations would subsequently prove to be a double-edged sword, however. In the aftermath of voting it allowed the regime to explicitly identify those individual areas that had defected to the opposition. …

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