The Zimbabwe presidential contest

The August 23 – 24, 2023, election, created another history, a new chapter and a fresh phase in Africa. Since the population now suffers from greater economic distress and a severe decline in basic social services, the citizens of Zimbabwe trooped out to determine their future, to change the narrative and re-define the political landscape of the country through a long awaited election that encapsulates any democratic government.

This democratic action saw the emergence of the incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa from Zanu-PF Party, the winner of the Zimbabwe presidential contest roughly with 53 percent of the vote against 44 percent for the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) Nelson Chamisa. But this winning gives continuity to the Zanu-PF Party who has welded the seat of power for 43 years as well as an extension to Mnangagwa tenure for a second term of 5 years.

The celebration atmosphere has been on for the party leaders and supporters of the Mnangagwa as well as congratulatory messages from other countries.

However, election observers including the five principal missions observing Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections, which are the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the European Union, Africa Union, Commonwealth and Carter Center, have issued statement even before the election announcement, pointing out certain discrepancies and flaws surrounding the electoral process that has not only questioned the integrity of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) but also the electoral process that emerged Mnangagwa as winner.

Irregularities surrounding the pre- and post-election

While acknowledging the power of incumbency that often times has ensured the victory of incumbent presidents at the polls, election observers still maintain that the ”power of incumbency ” muscle was flexed to an extreme fault, which tilted the playing field in multiple ways and distorted the election process, which is an abuse of power and unconstitutional.

Prior to the election, new draconian legal laws were enacted to restrict freedom of expression and a heavily biased state-run media became the country’s watch dog, while disinformation campaign aimed at ensuring voters apathy was promoted. Independent journalists and election observers were denied entry to the country.

Again, activists who clamoured for a levelled atmosphere and opposition leaders were heavily assaulted, harassed, and in some cases arrested, tried and remanded for spurious charges. It was gathered that an organization under the ruling party that was accredited to observe the elections, collected voters’ personal details at the “exit poll” table.

Furthermore, oppositions to the ZANU-PF were banned from holding rallies and campaigns, which was a systemic bias aimed at creating an imbalanced political field.

Tug of war between Mnangagwa and election observers

It was stale news to find election observers like EU discredited and Carter Center denied entry to the country since Mnangagwa and his associates had emphasized that only organizations from “friendly” countries would be allowed to observe the election and must stay within their lane.

For the Carter Center, the Zimbabwe government invited the mission to take part in the observation process 49 days to the election, while denying major personnel entry visa. The government alleged that some of its observers from neighboring African countries had “clandestine motives” and planned to “stoke tensions,” since they have subverted constitutional government in their own home countries.

This allegation from the government controlled media raised concerns that forced the Carter Center to beef up security in ensuring the safety of its representatives. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was when 30 of the 40 short-term Carter Center observers were denied accreditation, which constituted a last-minute adjustment of assignments.

Meanwhile, the EU election-observation mission (EOM) was accused of giving whiskey and grocery vouchers to “influence journalists to make outlandish claims that seek to sully the whole election process.”

The EU mission rebutted the allegations in its post-election statement, saying “there was an extensive information campaign against the EU EOM and unacceptable attempts to discredit the mission as well as other international observer organizations by some media.”

SADC’s surprise package

The dissatisfaction registered by these organizations and their rebuttal statements might mean mere words to the Zimbabwe government since it was expected due to the informal treatment melted against organizations by the Zimbabwe government.

But the Mnangagwa-led administration was caught off guard and in for bundle of reactions from SADC organization on the election. This is due to the public information that SADC is mainly comprised of African leaders from countries like South Africa that overcame western oppression as Zimbabwe.

In this vein, Mnangagwa continuously stressed the unimportance of observers from regional actors, particularly the SADC observers, while secretly formulating methods to discredit other missions like the Carter Center. The Zimbabwe government anticipated the SADC mission to stand in holy matrimony by presenting a positive observation report to the world.

The SADC delegation in its statement, headed by former Zambian Vice President Nevers Mumba, said, “Some aspects of the Harmonised Elections fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guideline”.

Also, SADC described the act of collection of sensitive information from voters at the polling unit by the Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ) as an act solely carried out for the purpose of intimidating the citizens before voting.

Meanwhile, Nigerian former President Goodluck Jonathan and head of the Africa Union observer delegation was not left out of the criticism as he announced that the “FAZ activities should be declared criminal offenses.”

Furthermore, a global network of monitoring organizations and the US Agency for International Development heavily criticized the government for interfering with the tabulation procedures, which could either verify or counter the official results released by ZEC.

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It was a puzzle why there was a police raid and arrest of 39 local observers staff members from the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and the Election Resource Centre (ERC) who were local observers working on the parallel vote tabulation. This tabulation was previously used in 2018 by the ruling party to confirm the ZEC pronouncement of a Mnangagwa victory and to refute the opposition’s claim of winning.

These and many other-threatening incidents that undermined the credibility of the election paved way for such blunt and unsatisfactory report from SADC on the Zimbabwe 2023 election.

The ruling party’s stand on SADC assessment

In a bid to make light of the assessment given by SADC, the ruling party spokesperson ,Chris Mutsvangwa, dismissed the statement as laughable, responding that the head of the delegation was “reporting on his own personal opinion to discredit the country’s polls and not reflecting the SADC electoral principles.”

The following day, SADC headquarters in Botswana issued a statement of support to re-affirm its delegation on the ground. Although, presidents of Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa who are members of the SADC organization have sent out congratulatory wishes to Mnangagwa on his re-election victory without any reference to the concerns raised by the SADC observers, it does not bestow electoral legitimacy on the announced winner of a process which the organizations’ observers have declared as severely flawed.

In my opinion, the government’s brazen attempt to influence local and international election observers by referencing only regional bodies needs to be studied professionally if it was a course and patronized at a high ticket rate if it was a show.

Opposition reaction and demands…

As usual, the Zanu-PF opposition rejected the election outcome. The major opposition, The Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) demanded for a re-run while terming the election process a ‘blatant and gigantic fraud.’

Although, Mnangagwa denies such allegations, upholding his stance that the elections conducted were free and fair.

The CCC deputy spokesperson , Gift Siziba, still maintains “that the entire election in this country was flawed,” while alleging there had been deliberate voter suppression leading to a low turnout in urban areas where the CCC tends to perform strongly, which demands a re-run of the election.”

Such hostile challenge has become a tradition, often recorded in the aftermath of the declaration of election results in most countries, thereby refusing to emulate the unprecedented exemplary act of sportsmanship displayed by one time Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, to emerging President Muhammadu Buhari where he conceded defeat and sent a congratulatory message even before the announcement of the election results.

However, judging by the overall assessment of the whole process by the different election observers including the government monopoly of the country’s media, there probably could be need to see reasons for the opposition call for an election re-run.

Even though Mnangagwa has advised the complainant to seek redress in court if unsatisfied, analysts maintain that the odds might be glaring darkly against the opposition since the country’s judicial system is known for compromise.

“It seems incredulous that you would approach the same court that has been condemned and expect an outcome that would be in your favour,” said Chris Maroleng from Good Governance Africa.

Moreover, it is noted that the duration procedure for an election re-run could become lengthy due to the excess time the opposition is taking in compiling their own voter tabulations, based on polling station data rather than constituency level. This is needed to enable concrete evidence to embark on a legal challenge. This could wan public sympathy off the people.

However, Maroleng noted that the opposition best bet might be for it to get Southern African regional bloc SADC to push for the elections to be re-run under international supervision.

Future implications of such occurrence

Besides, strict measures must be put in place to hinder such election process that raises serious questions about the credibility process, and is being assessed by 90 percent of election observers, both local and international as an election filled with undeniable flaws.

Continuity of such negative pattern would further plunge the country into its death trap. Since such unconstitutional display and autocratic action that played out before, during and after the election are partly reasons military seek to hijack power since an ounce of democracy was not featured in the election.

Also, voter suppression and intimidation and media manipulation that became a prevalent factor directed by the government is likely prolong the country’s dysfunction and severe economic woes, as it was noted that voters turnout dropped significantly compared to the 2018 election.

There must be respect for the rule of law if indeed any country terms itself a participant of the democratic society, as no election should be carried out in a climate of fear.

Taking a cue from Goodluck Jonathan’s words, “No country’s citizen’s blood is worth the political ambition of any politician.”

Anthonia is a final year student of the Department of Mass Communication, University of Benin