This year marks 10 years since the disputed 2008 harmonized elections. At that time, the public was growing angry while it was taking more than a month for the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) to announce the result of the 29 March 2008 presidential poll. Rumor, speculation and uncertainty gripped the country. The period following that first round of the 2008 Presidential Elections in Zimbabwe was marked by political violence that left a reportedly more than 200 people dead, thousands more people injured and more than 200 000 people internally displaced – the worst violence in the southern African country since independence in 1980. Much remains to be done to prevent a repeat of the violence.
The failure to announce the result was heavily criticized by the opposition who approached the High Court for relief. However, Justice Tendai Uchena infamously ruled in favor of ZEC arguing that the law permits them to undertake a recount and verification process. Surprisingly, the ZEC alleged that they were recounting votes that they had not disclosed for any one of the candidates to ask for a recount. Had ZEC privately disclosed the result to Mugabe? If yes, than there was a calculated collusion and, if no, why then recount the votes before announcement of the result and there after maybe receive a request for recount and verification from any of the candidates?
When the polls results were finally announced on 2 May 2008, they showed that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) candidate, the late Morgan Tsvangirai, had won by 47.9 percent whilst Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, garnered 42.2 percent of the total votes. Independent candidate and former finance minister Simba Makoni pulled 8.1 percent. This effectively meant that since no candidate reached the 50 plus 1 percent vote required for outright majority, a second round was organized for 27 June 2007.
In this case the law states that the two-top candidates go for a run-off, meaning Tsvangirai and Mugabe were to square-off once more with the candidate getting the popular vote during second run winning the presidency. However, the MDC-T disputed the result arguing their tally showed Tsvangirai had won 50.3 percent of the vote, a narrow majority that would have him sworn in as the president, with Mugabe getting only 43.8 percent.
Media reports suggest that the violence after the first round began in the town of Murehwa about 70 kilometers North-East of Harare. The violence escalated throughout the country with both ZANU-PF and MDC-T blaming each other’s supporters for instigating the violence. However, western governments and most non-governmental organizations blamed ZANU-PF for the violence. Mugabe had been telling his supporters that “the bullet has replaced the ballot”.
The dispute went up a new level on 22 June, when Tsvangirai announced that he was withdrawing from the second round famously describing the run-off as a “violent sham” that was a security threat to his supporters. ZEC rejected Tsvangirai’s withdraw arguing that it was too late for him to pull out since they had printed the ballot paper with his name and all other logistics were in place.
Constitutional law expert Professor Lovemore Madhuku then said that it was politically correct for Tsvangirai to pull out because a free and fair election was not possible, yet, legally he was bound to participate: “The strict legal position is that candidature for the run-off or second election is not a voluntary exercise, you give your consent when you contest the first election.”
In other words there was no provision for withdrawal.
The dispute caught the attention of world leaders with the then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon on 23 June 2008 encouraging ZEC to postpone the run-off as Tsvangirai had genuine concerns that required attention. He further said that, “the people of Zimbabwe have the right to choose their leader” in a conducive environment that result in a free, fair and credible election. Then African Union Chairman weighed in describing the events unfolding in Zimbabwe as “a matter of grave concern”.
Instead of declaring Mugabe unopposed, ZEC choose to go ahead with the electoral process with Tsvangirai’s name on the ballot. Mugabe won the opposition boycotted run-off by overwhelming margin of 85.51 percent of the votes. Mugabe was hastily inaugurated at State House by then Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku and on the same day travelled to Egypt for an African Union (AU) Summit where he was surprisingly welcomed.
The AU called for dialogue eventually leading to the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU) on 13 February 2009 by ZAUNU-PF, the MDC-T and another MDC formation led by Professor Arthur Mutambara. Mugabe remained president whilst Tsvangirai became prime minister with Mutambara and Thokozani Khupe (then MDC-T party Vice-President) becoming deputy prime ministers.
Ministerial posts were shared with ZANU-PF getting the bulk at the same time retaining key portfolios that include defense, security and agriculture whilst sharing the powerful ‘Home Affairs’ portfolio which the Registrar-General then tasked with preparing the voters roll. Police also fell under a system where both ZANU-PF and MDC-T had co-ministers. MDC-T was able to wrestle control of the lucrative finance ministry and under the leadership of Tendai Biti was able to stabilize the economy.
Mugabe was later to slip on the eve of his 2013 general election whilst addressing security chiefs where he said Tsvangirai in 2008 won by 73 percent. Whether a slip of a tongue or not, it fed a widely accepted view that Tsvangirai won the 2008 presidential election and victory was stolen during the five weeks of delayed election results with the help of a questionable High Court Judgment.
The tragic lessons that can be drawn from the 2008 political violence are that such electoral fights can tear apart the social fabric of a nation and that the power to govern can only be derived from the people. Another lesson is that holding elections without ensuring strong independent institutions, like the courts, can lead to a sham democracy. Holding elections is but one element of democracy that need to be further buttressed with a vibrant parliament and protection of human rights.
Mugabe cannot argue that the elections were democratic whilst underperforming with regards to upholding human rights, supporting the oversight role of parliament, the independence of the judiciary, and other key pillars of democracy. A country’s election management body must be independent of the ruling government and must remain absolutely impartial when conducting elections with procedure clearly spelt out and dispute mechanisms in place.
Another election approaches
In July/August 2018, Zimbabwe heads for another crucial general election. And for the first time in nearly two decades the faces of Mugabe and Tsvangirai will not be on the ballot paper. Although 112 political parties have confirmed to participate, the real fight is between incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa of ZANU-PF and Advocate Nelson Chamisa of the MDC-T.
Already there are reports of intimidation of voters. There are reports that ZANU-PF members are demanding voter registration slips from the electorate. The alleged deployment of 5,000 soldiers by President Mnangagwa’s government is seen as a strategy resembling the 2008 disputed election.
However, it is encouraging to note that Mnangagwa has invited international election observers, some whom have already visited the country for pre-election assessment. European Union election observers arrived only last week. At the same time, Mnangagwa has invited all political parties for a conference to iron out any differences.
It is only the politics of compromise that can solve political problems, not the law or technical support from donors. It remains be seen whether Mnangagwa’s overtures are cosmetic to divert political parties and observers from the obscure National Logistic Committee that is said allegedly indirectly runs the elections. As a result of the continued uncertainty, one of the key factors during the ensuing harmonized elections will be how results are processed, and their announcement managed, to avoid a repeat of 2008.