Three perspectives on Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections

11 December, 2018

Building on ODID’s expertise on Zimbabwe, the department recently invited three experts from UK universities to discuss this year’s historic elections in Zimbabwe. These scholars shared what their research had shown about ZANU(PF) election strategies, the role of social movements, and manipulation of the voters’ roll.

When Zimbabweans went to the polls in July, Robert Mugabe’s name was missing from the ballot paper for the first time in 38 years. The 93-year-old leader had been removed from office the previous November in a ‘military assisted transition’ – a coup according to most commentators – that ushered in the former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as the country’s head of state and leader of the ruling party, ZANU(PF).

The candidate for the country’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was Nelson Chamisa – a young and charismatic politician, who had taken over the party after the death of the leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, in February. Despite both presidential candidates being untested, the official election results gave Mnangagwa victory, with 50.8% of the vote. This was disputed by the MDC, first through street protests, which were brutally suppressed, and then in a failed court case that sought to get the result overturned.

To discuss this election, and its broader significance, ODID hosted Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham; Farai Chipato, PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London; and Sara Rich Dorman, Senior Lecturer in African Politics at the University of Edinburgh.

The ‘subtle violence’ of ZANU(PF)’s election campaigning

Nic argued that the country’s need for international financial support caused the ruling party to invite international observers to oversee the process. To unlock donor funds, the Zimbabwean government, he said, quoting one minister, saw elections ‘as an instrument of foreign policy’. Victory in this election was also important for Mnangagwa, Nic argued, in order to consolidate his own authority within the party, as it was unclear how much control he had over prominent military leaders who had ousted Mugabe the previous November.

The need to both win big and win credibly presented an obvious challenge for Mnangagwa, who needed to secure an election victory but without being seen to have compromised the process through intimidation or vote-rigging – tactics that had characterised ZANU(PF)’s previous election campaigns. This helps to explain why, while there was less use of physical coercion, the party continued to benefit from ‘subtle violence’ – the use of threats and references to past violence – to mobilise the vote. While these acts were committed by those affiliated to ZANU(PF), party leaders argued that this simply represented ‘muscle memory’ and was not party policy.     

The success of this strategy was mixed. On the one hand, it made it harder for election observers to condemn the elections. On the other hand, some monitoring teams issued critical statements and some international actors, in particular the United States, remained sceptical of fully re-engaging with Mnangagwa’s government.

MDC allies: where were the new social movements?

Moving on from the ruling party, Farai focused on an historically important set of actors in the opposition: non-governmental organisations. After the 2013 election, there was optimism among a new generation of young people that popular politics had moved on from political parties. Tracing this story, Farai explained how the MDC had been formed out of a coalition of NGOs and trade unions in the late 1990s and had worked closely and effectively with these civic society groups throughout the 2000s. After the 2013 election, infighting within the party had weakened these ties. Soon after, a set of new urban social movements emerged as vehicles for popular opposition politics, including #ThisFlag led by Pastor Evan Mawarire and Citizens’ Manifesto.

In the 2018 election, however, upsetting some expectations, many of these social movements did not overtly support the MDC and had little effect on the election. This was most apparent in the decision by leaders of these social movements, such as Evan Mawarire and Fadzayi Mahere, to stand as independent candidates in the election – which met with mixed success. Farai argued that rather than providing the starting point for new types of politics, the election was a return to older trends. This was most obvious in the government’s authoritarian crackdown on protests in early August after the announcement of the election results, in which six protesters were shot and killed and many leaders arrested and imprisoned. These developments have meant that the optimism that existed around these social movements in the last few years has dissipated and their role in Zimbabwe’s political future is uncertain.

Administrative control: manipulations of the voters’ roll

Rather than focusing on a specific set of agents, Sara discussed the long-ignored institutional issue of the voters’ roll, which had been the subject of a comprehensive audit in the run-up to the election.

Sara argued that manipulation of the voters’ roll had been the primary way in which ZANU(PF) had controlled elections since the 1980s. Prior to previous elections there had often been issues around the timing of its publication. In 2013, for instance, it was published two days before the election and was only available in hard copy, which was difficult to analyse quickly.

In contrast, in 2018 the voters’ roll was compiled through a Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) exercise. This meant that an organisation with which Sara worked in June and July, Team Pachedu, was able to undertake systematic statistical analysis.

Pachedu found that despite the cleaning exercise costing $5 million, the voter data had been poorly entered, which meant it could only be cleaned to a very limited extent. Sara showed how this affected the quality of the roll as there were significant errors throughout, and inconsistencies in data entry made it impossible to search or check data.  Further, Sara pointed out how voter data revealed deep-seated problems in the issuing of national registration IDs, which were then used to populate the voters’ roll, producing results that raised many questions. Taken cumulatively, these errors revealed past attempts to manipulate voter details, a failure to ensure that enumerators were properly trained, and an inability to convincingly clean the roll, highlighting issues of capacity within the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission.

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About the author(s)
Dan Hodgkinson
Departmental Lecturer in African History and Politics