Commonwealth Observer Mission observing people voting in ZimbabweZimbabwe’s election was a test of the Commonwealth’s strengthened remit of election observation. [photo: ComSec on Flikr]

Much had been made of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s invitation to ‘throw open the doors of Zimbabwe’ to international election observers during Zimbabwe’s harmonized elections, held on 30 July. It was the first time that Commonwealth and EU observers had been allowed to assess Zimbabwean elections since 2002. There were hopes that the considerable number of domestic and international observers would help keep the campaign ‘clean’, and act as a vital break on election rigging or violence and intimidation. As the Commonwealth COG [Observer Group] head, former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama pointed out, the most testing time of any election comes around the announcement of the result, and depressingly, the Zimbabwe army reverted to ‘default mode’. In their unprecedented joint statement on 2 August, international election observation groups were united in their condemnation of the previous day’s violence and the army’s excessive use of force’. This, together with continued crackdown on opposition supporters, has raised grave international reservations about the legitimacy and credibility of the outcome.

As the fate of Zimbabwe’s application to rejoin the Commonwealth also lies in the balance, it is worth considering the Commonwealth’s election observation report, and how this differs from other international observers’ assessments whether the election process conformed to both Zimbabwe Election Commission rules and agreed international guidelines.

The Commonwealth’s preliminary report underlined their assessment had been affected by the violence of 1 August. (Some Commonwealth observers had witnessed the demonstrations, and subsequent violence in central Harare first hand). The report laid out the COG had deployed to all 10 provinces, and visited 360 polling stations, and its liaison with multiple stakeholders and observers. In contrast to the 2002 campaign, the report emphasized the improved pre-election environment, and all had previously remarked on the marked change of behavior by the police and armed forces. They had not witnessed, but had received reports of intimidation and politically motivated attacks, as well as the use of food aid and traditional leaders ‘galvanising’ voters to support the incumbent President and party. (The phraseology implied strongly COG regarded these as credible accounts.)The COG drew attention to positive reforms of the Electoral Code, but underlined ‘public confidence’ in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission needs ‘to be strengthened’, highlighting in particular the lack of transparency over printing of the ballot papers, and access to final voters’ roll before the election. Issues around Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC)’s biased coverage was particularly highlighted, and both ZEC and its Media Monitoring Committee were clearly identified as falling short (the COG pointed to recommendations for improvement which would be set out in the full report). The interim report criticized instances of hate speech, and vilification of women on social media. While the presence of four women on the presidential ticket was commendable, the sharp decline in women’s representation at parliamentary level was noted (with recommendations for reforms, as the quota system to boost women’s representation in Parliament is due to expire with the term of the incoming Parliament.) ZEC’S training of election officials was generally praised and their performance in running the poll, judged ‘well conducted and peaceful’. The overall tone was one of improvement, and the Commonwealth as well placed to assist in further necessary reforms. The report did not include comment on ZEC’s delayed communication of results which stoked doubts and tensions around the veracity of the harmonized election results.

The most critical and detailed assessment was delivered by the EU EOM which had already declared the elections to be ‘a critical test of Zimbabwe’s reform process’. In presenting its preliminary report on the morning of 1 August, the EU’s chief observer, Elmar Brok stressed:

“The elections were competitive, the campaign was largely peaceful and,   overall, political freedoms during the campaign, including freedom of movement, assembly and speech, were respected. However, the misuse of  state resources, instances of coercion and intimidation, partisan behaviour by  traditional leaders and overt bias in   state media, all in favour of the ruling  party, meant that a truly level playing field was not achieved, which negatively impacted on the democratic character of the electoral environment.”

The 12-page report addressed shortcomings around the compilation of the voters’ roll and its publication, the lack of communication, transparency, inclusivity and consequent erosion of ‘stakeholder confidence’; problems around the particularly high number of assisted voters in certain constituencies, and omissions from the voters roll. In addition, there were:

“shortcomings in the Electoral Act and the absence of campaign finance     regulations limit the integrity, transparency and accountability of the process. Furthermore, delays in adjudication, dismissal of court cases on merely technical grounds and a number of controversial judgments compromised the right to an effective legal remedy.”

The report went on to detail ZEC’s shortcomings, issues around BVR compilation and publication, inducements and coercion of prospective voters, media bias and failure to ensure equal coverage, the paucity of women candidates, and areas where regulation around media freedom and expression needed to be brought in line with the Constitution. The report concluded with emphasis that the ‘collation of results is on-going and we continue to observe this.’

In a joint statement, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute from the U.S. declared improvements in the political environment probably were not enough to convince voters they could oppose the ruling party without fear of retribution. The nine-page report addressed detailed aspects of the election campaign environment, pointed to soft’ intimidation and myriad examples of abuse of state resources, judicial bias, electoral inclusivity, ZEC management and questions confidence in its lack of transparency and bias (the ‘lopsided’ presidential ballot) concluded with ten firm recommendations to deliver a ‘credible peaceful conclusion’. The tone of the preliminary report was carefully weighed, and emphasized that further recommendations for strengthening best practice and reform would be forthcoming in the final report. For its part, the Carter Center roundly condemned the army’s use of force and underlined that its team would remain in Zimbabwe until 12 August, after which it would publish its final assessment.

In marked contrast, the preliminary reports by observers from the African Union, COMESA and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) were more favourable. In its summary of key findings published on 1 August, the AU EOM commented on the ‘marked improvement in the political space’, the ‘improved legal framework’ (although the Electoral Act was not completely aligned with the Constitution), praised ZEC and its management of the campaign, but noted ‘the low confidence of many opposition parties’ in ZEC’s impartiality and the reliability of the BVR; praised the largely peaceful campaign, despite the few isolated violent incidents. The AUEOM noted allegations of abuse of state resources; however, the report only cautiously commented while it could not ‘determine the extent to which these activities impacted the credibility of the electoral process, [they] could have provided an unlevel playing field.’ SADC’s preliminary report noted shortcomings in ‘delays in release of the voters’ roll, lack of transparency in the printing and procurement of election material as well as having a ballot paper layout which favoured one candidate over others’. However, its chief observer described the election as “a political watershed in the history of the country”.

As far as domestic observers’ reports are concerned, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN – a local association of 34 civil rights and religious organizations that deployed about 6,500 monitors), “found that the ruling party used state resources to campaign, employed food aid to entice people to vote for it, and enjoyed more favorable media coverage than the opposition. It also said the final voters’ roll was released too late to allow sufficient time to analyze it.”

The aftermath has been a brutal reminder of the problems of Zimbabwe’s transition to a mature African democracy. Already a warning has come from an influential American election observer that the army’s violent behavior will have a disastrous influence on Congress’ review of US sanctions and Washington’s willingness to agree to IMF support for debt restructuring. Full reports from the international election observation teams will not be available until approximately two months after the polling date. The COG’s report will form the basis of SG Patricia Scotland’s assessment to be sent to Commonwealth heads of government on whether Zimbabwe has complied sufficiently by agreed standards of good governance, and thus invited to re-join. The violence and on-going repression makes this look unlikely. Mnangagwa’s PR strategy of Zimbabwe ‘open for business’, ushering in a new era of reconciliation and reform, has been dented, probably irretrievably, by the Zimbabwe army’s determination to dictate politics. It was also a test of the Commonwealth’s strengthened remit of election observation. Many would argue what good is this if Commonwealth election observation – or any international election observation – does not act as a brake on state repression, and as a spur to institute meaningful reform?

Sue Onslow is the Deputy Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and a member of the Round Table Editorial Board.