Argument

Zimbabwe Needs Genuine Democracy, Not Window Dressing

As the country prepares for the first post-Mugabe elections, the United States and its allies must use all the leverage they have to demand genuine reform.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa (L) gives a speech after being officially sworn in during a ceremony in Harare on November 24, 2017.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa (L) gives a speech after being officially sworn in during a ceremony in Harare on November 24, 2017. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Zimbabwe is set to hold a national election next month. For the first time in several decades, Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country for 37 years, won’t be on the ballot for his Zanu-PF party. The 94-year-old former president was reportedly airlifted to Singapore for medical treatment earlier this month.

Mugabe had been Zimbabwe’s first and only leader since the country became independent in 1980. Last November, he tried to pave the way for his wife to succeed him. But that was a bridge too far for the military, which had enabled Mugabe to silence and kill political opponents while looting his country’s coffers for a generation. Mugabe was sent packing, and Emmerson Mnangagwa, his former vice president, was installed as president.

Last Saturday, there was an explosion at a Zanu-PF rally in Bulawayo, which President Mnangagwa has alleged was an assassination attempt. Even for a country with a long history of political violence, a bombing at a political rally is unprecedented. While the perpetrators, their targets, and their motives remain unknown, some say it was an inside job, and the president has said he knows the assailants.

The incident has raised the stakes and generated serious fears about the likelihood of peaceful elections. Mnangagwa has called for calm and ruled out the postponement of the July 30 election, though this is unlikely to allay concerns of further violence, reprisals, and retaliation.

The presidential election could be a positive step toward true democracy in Zimbabwe, but only if it is free and fair. The government must undertake serious reforms and provide assurances to ensure that free, fair, and peaceful elections happen, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely.

This is a moment when the international community has enormous leverage and must push for as much reform as possible immediately. For many years, the United States has relied, with mixed success, on the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, enacted in 2001, which imposes restrictions on U.S. companies and public institutions conducting any business with specified individuals, organizations, and companies connected to the Zimbabwean government.

Needless to say, the act, like other measures imposed by America’s European allies, ostensibly targeted the political and security establishment and therefore remains unpopular among the ruling elite in Zimbabwe. Opinions are divided on the efficacy of sanctions. Some Zimbabweans see them as a blunt instrument that has had unintended consequences for the civilian population. Others believe they provide leverage to encourage political change. But now is the time to demand true reform.

It is important to recall that Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s right-hand man for more than 50 years, going back to the time of the country’s war for liberation. He is therefore directly implicated in all that went wrong during Mugabe’s rule. But Mnangagwa is now saying all the right things. He is pleading for foreign investment and promising to protect civil society and human rights activists. Mnangagwa wrote earlier this year in the New York Times that he wants to build “a country with a thriving and open economy, jobs for its youth, opportunities for investors, and democracy and equal rights for all.”

To help Mnangagwa turn rhetoric into reality, the international community, including the United States, must apply consistent diplomatic and political pressure. More than anything, Mnangagwa wants the international community to bless the election as credible, especially if he wins. After the vote, the winner will be secure in office and less likely to take steps to cede or dilute his power.

For its part, the opposition is divided; there are a total of 23 candidates, including Mnangagwa, vying for the presidency. Following a split between the late Morgan Tsvangirai’s erstwhile deputies, Thokozani Khupe and Nelson Chamisa, his MDC-T — the largest opposition party — has formed an alliance with several other parties, with the 40-year-old former student leader Chamisa as its candidate.

Zimbabwe’s past elections have been marred by irregularities including violence, allegations of fraud, questions about credibility of the voter rolls, accusations of impartiality by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, interference by the military in favor of Zanu-PF, and an uneven electoral playing field for parties and candidates.

The international community can use its leverage to ensure the government takes steps to maintain the integrity of this election. This means ensuring access to the voter rolls so that civil society organizations can conduct an audit, maintaining the independence of Zimbabwe’s election commission, and securing paper ballots to eliminate the possibility of fraud.

Following inexplicable delay, and after being dragged to court, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission finally released a voter roll last week. Opposition parties and civic groups have questioned whether it is easy to search it and analyze its authenticity, but they are currently attempting to do so.

The government should also be held to account for ensuring that all political parties have access to and coverage by state-run media. Right now, the ruling party, Zanu-PF, enjoys overwhelming airtime and space in the state media, including live coverage of Mnangagwa’s campaign rallies. This is especially important in the rural areas where most voters live, because internet connectivity is limited. So, state-run television and radio are often the only accessible sources of information in rural areas and for the majority of the urban population that cannot afford to pay for cable TV.

If Mnangagwa is serious about reform, he must also repeal laws giving the government power to toss political opponents in jail and crack down on public protests as well as Mugabe-era legislation designed to roll back civil liberties, quash independent journalism, thwart the rule of law, and criminalize speech critical of the president. As long as those statutes are on the books, the government can use them to silence critics and opponents.

Meanwhile, the military continues to cast a dark shadow over the election. The army, which has been implicated in massacres of thousands of innocent civilians in the early 1980s has consistently backed Zanu-PF by intimidating voters, especially in rural areas during the 2008 election campaign, when hundreds of people were killed. The army has made clear Mugabe was removed from office for political reasons: to prevent more purges of Zanu-PF party apparatchiks and to save the party from defeat in the 2018 elections. There are already worrying reports that the military is beginning to interfere in the election by sending more than 2,000 soldiers to rural areas.

The United States and the United Nations should demand public assurances from the military and other security agencies that they will not interfere in the election. The military can and should publicly signal that those days are done. Zimbabwe has a long road ahead of it, and credible elections are just one step on the path to meaningful reform.

Siphosami Malunga is the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa.

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