[This article was written for the Commonwealth Round Table website. Opinions expressed in articles do not reflect the position of the Round Table editorial board.]
Late on Saturday night, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced the expected result of the country’s harmonized elections: Emmerson Mnangagwa re-elected as president with 52.9%, his CCC challenger Nelson Chamisa with 44%. ZANU-PF swept the board in the parliamentary elections with 136 seats (against CCC’s 73 MPs). [Local election results have not yet been posted.]. ZANU-PF has secured an absolute majority in Parliament, and the margin of victory in the presidential race prevented the need for a run-off in early October, and the likelihood of more violence.
The outcome of the latest round of Zimbabwe’s ‘electoral autocracy’ was never in doubt. Over the past five years, ZANU-PF has invested considerable time, energy and ingenuity in preparing the ground for the ‘right’ result through non-violent coercion. As Professor Brian Raftopoulous succinctly commented in March 2023, ‘the political space in Zimbabwe has closed’. ZANU-PF tactics included ‘weaponizing the law’ through a raft of repressive legislation designed to stifle public criticism (the most draconian is the so-called “Patriots Bill”), and to curtail civil society organisations’ ability to call the government to account (the Private Voluntary Organisations Act (PVOA)). Opposition rallies were repeatedly banned. There has been continued politicization of the justice system, with lengthy detentions without charge of ZANU-PF’s political opponents, and the targeting of sitting MPs. Other measures included politicisation of the supposedly independent Electoral Commission, with gerrymandering of new electoral boundaries, and instances of violence and intimidation against opposition supporters. There was also the dramatic increase in the required deposit for presidential candidates, the prohibitively high cost of accessing the electoral roll (preventing checks for anomalies) and manipulation of candidates’ registration process. As before, ZANU-PF used state resources in electioneering, exploited their domination of Zimbabwean media space for political messaging, on top of the well-established tactics of offering agricultural benefits, and food aid to leverage the rural vote in its favour. Before polling day, the Zimbabwean government’s deportation on arrival of a number of respected regional journalists was also ominous; the highly respected analyst and election observer, Professor Stephen Chan, was also deported on the eve of the poll. The location of polling booths were not posted, polling stations remained closed because of ‘non-delivery of ballot papers’, internet access was disrupted (restricting dissemination of photographs of crucial V11 constituency results), personal data misused or manipulated, civil society election monitors arrested and charged, and their computers confiscated. The centre of Harare was locked down by police, to prevent a possible re-run of the 2018 post-election protest which was brutally broken up by the security forces.
House of Lords debate: The Commonwealth and Zimbabwe (January 2023)
Opinion: Zimbabwe’s continued isolation
Zimbabwe and election observation missions
Despite ordinary Zimbabwe’s frustrations with ZANU-PF’s lacklustre record of managing the economy, opposition parties certainly did not help themselves. The opposition has been divided; CCC lacked coherent alternative policies and a clear message to voters which went beyond criticism of ZANU-PF’s poor track record. Before the poll, analysts were noting voter apathy, with a significant percentage of canvassed voters refusing to declare which party they intended to support. Election observer teams from the AU, SADC, EU and Carter Foundation have all been critical in their preliminary reports. SADC EOM’s conclusions were surprisingly firm: in its summary criticisms of Zimbabwean laws ‘restricting free speech, voter intimidation by ZANU-PF, and mismanagement by the ZEC, the mission concluded the poll may have been peaceful, but it did not meet necessary standards for democratic elections. (This prompted a public riposte from Mnangagwa that that the SADC team had ‘exceeded its mandate.’ ) As of 29 August, ‘SADC and the African Union have withheld congratulations that would legitimise the reported outcome of Zimbabwe’s elections, as have the Heads of State of neighbouring nations Kenya, Mozambique and Botswana.’
The Commonwealth is now confronted with the choice of whether or not to approve Zimbabwe’s readmission to the association. The critical 2018 Commonwealth Observation Group’s report had required ZANU-PF to institute meaningful reforms before this could be considered. Although in November 2022, the Commonwealth Secretariat mission led by Assistant Secretary, Luis Franceschi made encouraging noises about progress, the signs were far from promising. Senior Cabinet members were quietly warned by leading Commonwealth professionals of the damage to Zimbabwe’s chances of readmission if they persisted with planned repressive legislation. However, ZANU-PF refused to moderate its ‘lawfare’ of repressive legislation, arguing Zimbabwe’s sovereignty would otherwise be compromised. It is striking that the Commonwealth interim report on the harmonized elections is much milder than the SADC summary statement.
The UK has found itself in a minority on the issue of Zimbabwe’s reapplication. In January 2023, Minister Zak Goldsmith publicly voiced his concern at continued human rights abuses and ZANU-PF’s governance record. This public criticism made the UK government something of an outlier; the Canadians and Australian governments let it be known any decision should be dependent on assessment of the August elections. There has been increasing pressure from African members to re-admit Zimbabwe, not least on the grounds that two Franco-phone countries, Gabon and Togo, each with their questionable human rights records, joined the association in June 2022. To the ZANU-PF government and their supporters, this smacks of hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, there has been considerable Commonwealth diplomacy and engagement behind the scenes. Secretary General Patricia Scotland announced that she would not visit the country until Zimbabwe was formally readmitted. However, the announcement of a Zimbabwean election peace pact between all the contending parties on 4 August, was remarkably similar to a pre-poll agreement between rival Kenyan political leaders, William Ruto and Raila Odinga, announced at Marlborough House in March 2022. The Zimbabwean government formally invited a Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) to report on the polls – itself the product of painstaking discussions and additional funding from Commonwealth sources since the Secretariat’s electoral observer division can only use funds for COGs for existing members. The 14-person team arrived in Zimbabwe on 16 August, a mere eight days before the polls opened. This is a nonsense in terms of detailed election observation, notwithstanding the range of meetings between Commonwealth and Zimbabwean political and civil society actors last November. The COG has committed to publish its report. In the past these Commonwealth missions have prided themselves on the speed of publication, but the timing is unspecified.
Is there much riding on the COG’s judgment of the Zimbabwean electoral process and the Commonwealth’s subsequent action? The association risks putting its stamp of approval on the closure of political space in the country, and the evident curtailment of Zimbabweans’ rights. This also goes against King Charles’ call for meaningful implementation of the Commonwealth Charter in March, publicly backed by SG Scotland, and accompanied by the somewhat bizarre spectacle of heads of government being invited to signing the Charter again. As the Commonwealth Foundation has worked hard to remind members, it is the Commonwealth of peoples, and not just a collective of governments.
Whatever the COG mission concludes, the odds are Zimbabwe will be readmitted to the Commonwealth before next year’s CHOGM in Samoa. The Commonwealth has not been immune to the global phenomenon of ‘democratic regression’, and the weight of numbers is in Zimbabwe’s favour. There are now 21 African members, with an African chair in office. Background politics must also be remembered: the overwhelming likelihood is that the next SG will be from Africa. As always, South Africa’s views will be important (on 28 August the Ramaphosa government ‘noted election observers’ concerns’, but did not indicate any immediate further action); the UK government is looking to strengthen relations with the country as a ‘middle power’, and South Africa is facing its own electoral challenges next year. There are also those in the ‘old Commonwealth’ who favour drawing Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth fold lest Zimbabwe is ‘lost’ for a generation. However, the Commonwealth’s ‘soft power’ has declined significantly since the original 2003 COG report which ‘kicked off’ the original confrontation between Mugabe and the association; arguments that ZANU-PF can be encouraged to continue to reform once back inside the association are feeble, even if the Commonwealth has continued to try to nurture democratic practice at local government level. In general, despite the rhetoric of ‘whole of cycle’ election monitoring since 2018, far too little attention is paid to Commonwealth election observation recommendations; and CMAG seems to have degenerated into a mere advisory body, rather than a unique mechanism to support democratization and good governance. All in all, Zimbabwe’s looming readmission risks another blow to the Commonwealth’s reputation and relevance.
Sue Onslow is Visiting Professor at the Department of Political Economy, King’s College London.