Since the toppling of former President Robert Mugabe in a military coup last November, there has been a significant opening up of the democratic space in Zimbabwe. Examples of this opening up include the removal of police roadblocks from all the major roads in the country, allowing opposition parties to campaign in rural areas, and nurturing media freedom.

In the period before the July 30, 2018 elections, over seven months after a military coup, there was great anticipation for democratic change among opposition parties and their mainly urban supporters.

The pre-election period was relatively peaceful and appeared conducive to free and fair elections, except for the militarization of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the body charged with managing elections. Other warning signs were the use of traditional leaders by the ruling ZANU-PF government as political commissars and activists in rural areas, lack of transparency in the printing and storage of ballot papers, and the poor coverage of opposition parties and candidates by government-controlled media.

The political atmosphere in Zimbabwe became more tense a day before the 2018 election when former President Mugabe announced that he would vote for the opposition party and not his ZANU-PF “tormentors.” In response, the ruling ZANU-PF government and their supporters used the internet and news media to criticize the ex-president for being a “sell-out” who would never be buried at the National Heroes Acre.

A few weeks before the vote, the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC Alliance) threated to pull out of what they expected to be a sham election. They grudgingly agreed to take part in the polls despite raising concerns about the credibility and transparency of ZEC, weaknesses of the multiparty liaison committee, and neutrality of the ZEC Chairperson Priscilla Chigumba.

Preliminary results, especially from rural areas, indicated that ZANU-PF was winning with big margins, raising concerns about vote rigging among opposition supporters, given that most Zimbabweans are now either living in urban areas or the diaspora.

Signs of post-election violence were evident; the MDC Alliance even petitioned the chairperson of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, to intervene to avert another disputed election. Past elections—such as those in 2000, 2005, 2008, and 2013—have been characterized by allegations of fraud and state-sponsored violence.

Like in the past, SADC refused to be drawn into the dispute between ZANU-PF and MDC Alliance, choosing instead to rely on the SADC observer mission to report on the preparations for and conduct of the electoral contest. SADC’s response was based on its belief that the “new dispensation” would deliver a violence-free election where winners and losers would accept the results of the vote and move on.

These expectations turned out to be misplaced. As soon as MDC Alliance suspected that ZEC was changing election results by manipulating the figures on the V11 forms (documents carrying results from each polling station that must be signed by agents of all contesting parties), which were supposed to be displayed outside every polling station after the vote counting and verification process, their supporters began to put pressure on ZEC to release the results of the presidential election.

The MDC Alliance alleges that ZEC tampered with the information on twenty-one percent of the V11 forms to benefit the incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa. After the V11 forms are signed, the information is then recorded on the V23 forms, which collate the results from polling stations within a ward. The opposition alleges that information submitted on the V23 forms was cooked up by either inflating or deflating figures.

On July 31 the MDC Alliance announced that they had won the popular vote even though they conceded having lost several constituencies to ZANU-PF. As a result, urban voters began to celebrate what they believed was a victory for the opposition even before ZEC announced the final official results. Demonstrations by young urban supporters of the MDC Alliance later turned violent in response to police deployment and the refusal by security guards at the Harare International Conference Centre to grant the protesters entry, prompting the police and military to intervene, leaving at least six people dead and fourteen injured.

This round of post-election violence has demonstrated the persistence of election-related violence in Zimbabwe. Even though President Mnangagwa has promised to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to investigate the causes of the violence, it remains to be seen how this will prevent a future recurrence. With respect to what Zimbabwean institutions and the relevant stakeholders could do to deepen democracy and avert the recurrence of electoral violence, below are ten options:

  1. Ensure all parties and citizens have access to the voter roll at least seven days before election day so anomalies can be rectified. The voter roll has been the epicenter of electoral disputes since the turn of the century, largely due to the opposition’s suspicion that ZANU-PF, through ZEC, systematically inserts ghost voters, especially in rural areas.
  2. Align old laws (such the Public Order and Safety Act, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Broadcasting Services Act, and Criminal Law and Codification Act) with the 2013 Constitution so that issues left unresolved by the Government of National Unity (2009-2013) can be addressed.
  3. Reconstitute the electoral management body to enable it to act independently, and empower the multiparty liaison committee of ZEC to adjudicate over issues brought to it by all stakeholders.
  4. Ensure sufficient transparency and credibility in the production and distribution of ballot papers. This also entails protecting the integrity of V11 and V23 forms during the transmission of results at the polling station, ward, district, provincial, and national levels.
  5. Depoliticize the roles of traditional leaders, especially in rural areas where the ruling party uses them to intimidate voters.
  6. Enforce adherence by all political parties and candidates to the ZEC code of conduct which bars them from announcing results before the electoral management body has finalized and verified the numbers.
  7. Establish a truth, justice, peace, and reconciliation commission to deal with all post-independence electoral conflicts. The commission must also address findings released by the Chihambakwe Commission of Inquiry and the Anna Tibaijuka Report on Operation Murambatsvina in 2005.
  8. Build internal conflict resolution mechanisms to address intra-party political violence, especially during party primaries. This mechanism can also be used to address intra-party succession disputes.
  9. State-controlled media should ensure that all political parties and candidates should receive equal and balanced coverage as required by the electoral act. The ZEC committee responsible for monitoring the media must be empowered with the power to sanction offenders.
  10. SADC and the AU should play active roles in addressing problems prior to voting day rather than waiting for post-electoral violence to erupt. Observer missions should focus on contentious issues raised by different parties, such as the transmission of the results, printing of ballot papers, coverage in the public media, and voter intimidation in rural areas.
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