Coup, Constitution and the Count: Zimbabwe’s Disputed Elections
In November 2017, Robert Mugabe’s 38-year rule ended. At the time, I called this what it was – a coup – though popular among many Zimbabweans who thronged the streets alongside the tanks. In an attempt to legitimise the coup, parliamentary impeachment proceedings began. As the vote approached – with tanks in the streets and Mugabe under house arrest – he resigned, paving the way for his long-time deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa. President Mnangagwa’s mantra since then has been economic development, proclaiming Zimbabwe to be “open for business”.
Last week, local government, parliamentary, and presidential elections took place. The two main contenders were Mnangagwa of the ruling ZANU-PF, and Nelson Chamisa of the opposition MDC Alliance.
For the first time in several elections, international observers were permitted – from SADC, the AU, the Commonwealth, the European Union and others. In contrast to previous elections, especially the bloody 2008 elections, the run-up did not see political violence. There was a relatively open political environment. However, as international observers uniformly noted, the ruling party abused state resources to campaign and state media remained overwhelmingly biased. The level of bias in the public broadcaster sometimes gives the appearance of satire.
In the days after voting, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) began to announce parliamentary and local government results, announcing an opposition clean sweep of urban constituencies, but with ZANU-PF securing two-thirds of parliamentary seats – but no presidential results.
The delay in announcing presidential results and claims by the opposition that they had won but the vote was being ‘stolen’ led to growing unrest. Protests broke out in Harare on 1 August. Public order policing units arrived but did not confront protesters. Suddenly, military forces appeared. Amidst journalists, bystanders, and groups of unarmed opposition protesters, soldiers opened fire with live ammunition. Reports currently put the number of deaths of civilians shot by soldiers at six with more injured.
A police spokesperson reported on national television that the police had requested military intervention. However, in terms of s 213 of the Zimbabwean Constitution, only the President may authorise this. The military action violates the Zimbabwean Constitution and international law. It was unlawful to deploy the military, and their actions were plainly disproportionate. The President – after initially blaming the opposition for the deaths – promised an independent investigation. However, a group of opposition officials working on collating polling returns to challenge the official results were arrested at their headquarters and remain in custody. Despite being arrested for public violence, the police executed search warrants authorising them to seize computers. An opposition press conference on 3 August was disrupted by riot police, who commanded journalists to disperse until a cabinet minister intervened. Local and foreign journalists continue to report harassment, including detentions and assault.
Late on 2 August, ZEC announced the presidential results, giving President Mnangagwa 50.8% of the national vote, enough to avoid the run-off election required where no candidate passes 50%.
There are two strong indications from information in the public domain that the presidential results are implausible – voter turnout and disaggregated results.
In a statement at close of voting, ZEC reported that average turnout had been 75%. The final results three days later reflected significantly higher voter turnout across the country, from 80% to 90%. Not only are these turnouts implausible on their own terms, but the difference between figures reported at close of voting and in the final results suggests that perhaps 10 to 15% of votes were added after voting.
Secondly, despite calls from international observers, the opposition, and civil society, ZEC initially did not release disaggregated results of individual polling stations. It provided gross provincial figures. Under Zimbabwean electoral law, after counting at each polling station, the results are to be posted in a ‘V11 form’ on the door. The V11 forms reflect the actual count performed at the polling station and are signed by party polling agents. Two NGOs, Citizens Manifesto and Team Pachedu, have attempted to collate V11 returns. Both have reached more than 10% of national polling stations and reflect a substantial lead for Chamisa. A third initiative by Zimbabwe Election Support Network concluded that the presidential results might be within the margin of error of their sample-based observations, but could not rule out that the correct result might have required a run-off election. ZESN also recorded that 45% of their sampled voters were ‘assisted’ to vote – contentious, given Zimbabwe’s high levels of literacy and young electorate.
On 6 August, amidst calls from international observers, local NGOs and the opposition, ZEC released disaggregated results. The opposition have rejected these results and announced that they are preparing a legal challenge to the final results of the presidential elections and some parliamentary constituencies.
As I write, harrowing accounts are emerging of a military crackdown, with reports of soldiers moving through opposition strongholds, beating and abducting people. Some reports indicate that as many as 60 have been abducted.
The international community appears indifferent. South African President Ramaphosa and Kenya’s President Kenyatta sent messages congratulating Mnangagwa. The UK, widely seen to be backing Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF, made a statement through Minister of State for Africa Harriett Baldwin, expressing concern at the disproportionate response of security services but committing to continuing to work with the Zimbabwean Government.
As the security clampdown intensifies and the opposition persists in challenging the official election results, there is reason for grave concern for democracy and human rights in Zimbabwe.