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Zimbabwe’s elections 2013: more confusion, more uncertainty

Zimbabwe’s trauma continues. The Zimbabwe Election Commission has announced a landslide victory for ZANU-PF. ZANU-PF reportedly took two-thirds of the parliamentary seats and President Mugabe won 61% of the presidential vote, with Morgan Tsvangirai picking up 34%. MDC-T has called the elections ‘a sham’, ‘a farce’, ‘null and void’. GNU education minister, David Coltart, argued that “Zimbabwe has been subjected to electoral fraud on a massive scale”. Tendai Biti called it all a ‘loquacious tragedy’.

Meanwhile, the official observers from SADC and the AU have called the election ‘peaceful, credible and efficient’, ‘free and peaceful’, reflecting ‘the will of the people’, with high turnouts and orderly voting. Some have called for a rejection of the ballot and the staging of mass resistance. Baba Jukwa, the massively popular Facebook avatar with 350k ‘likes’ who claims he is a disaffected ZANU-PF insider, has declared war.

We will never know the ‘true’ results, although as last time there was probably a rural-urban and regional split, with more of a balance overall than any political grouping claims. Both main parties naturally proclaimed before the poll that they were likely to be certain victors. Results of prior opinion polling were mixed, although pointing towards a rehabilitation of ZANU-PF and disillusionment with the MDC’s performance in government. Meanwhile, the MDC and the allied NGO groups long before the elections pointed to the potential for electoral fraud, and the cynical manipulation of the vote.  While unlike 2008 there was thankfully minimal violence during the election period, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network argued that there were major problems with the process, including:

  •  Voters’  roll discrepancies
  • Intimidation
  • Late  opening of polling stations
  • Slow pace of assisting aspiring voters in some urban polling stations
  • High number of assisted voters recorded in rural areas
  • Shortage of ballot papers in some wards
  • First time voters denied the chance to vote as they were not appearing in the      voters’ roll and their registration slips had missing ward details.

A joint statement from the NGOs rejected the election results. The AU observer team also expressed ‘grave concerns’. The UK and the US have also called the elections ‘flawed’. China, India, South Africa and others have remained silent so far, although this is how it was reported in the China Daily and The Hindu.

The scale and implications of the problems remain unclear. Claims and counter claims are being made. In a small country, rigging the vote by over a million is a hell of lot, especially consistently across presidential, parliamentary and council elections. The turnout was high at around 3.5m, making it even more challenging. Maybe they did win as many had expected, but perhaps not by as big a margin as declared.

However, suspicions of foul play are running high. ZANU-PF is a sophisticated and ruthless operation. Such suspicions are increased by bizarre rumours about dodgy security companies, Israeli pens in the voting booths where the ink disappears, special ballot papers with watermarks with crosses against ZANU-PF already inserted and a specially imported Chinese solution for removing the pink ink from voters’ fingers. No-one really knows what happened; and we probably never will.

The final tallies are being published (check here and here for details), but the scale of the ZANU-PF win is clear. What is for sure is that the disputes over the results will run and run, with legal challenges to follow. If the confusion and uncertainty persists, the tentative recovery that had been nurtured since 2009 may be quickly wiped out if a new government does not move quickly to assure investors, donors and others.

What to make of it all? I am unsure, but here are a few quick reflections and some links to some interesting sources and commentaries that I have found over the last few days.

The rehabilitation of the image of ZANU-PF and President Mugabe in particular has been striking. For example on a flight from Addis to London, a colleague of mine was handed a copy of the New African, with a special glossy insert feature on Zimbabwe. It had articles from all the leading presidential candidates, but in the small print you could see that it was produced by the Ministry of Information. The message was clear: Zimbabwe was back on track, and Mugabe was in charge.

The MDC formations meanwhile were floundering. While having some successes in government – notably on the economy (under Tendai Biti) and in education (under David Coltart) – in many people’s eyes they had been tainted by power, lacking ideas and vision, and reverting to the corrupt practices that they had criticised in opposition.

The election manifestos of the main parties (ZANU-PF, MDC-T, MDC and ZAPU) were predictable enough, but none really fired people’s interest. The issue of land was of course ever-present in the electioneering discourse, deployed in particular by ZANU-PF to bolster its nationalist and rural credentials. The MDC groupings, even after over a decade, sadly still failed to offer a convincing alternative narrative on land and rural development.

Of course the elections were not being fought on such policy issues. Those opposed to ZANU-PF however failed to broker a coalition of opposition, and the vote was often divided, particularly in Matabeleland, but also in some urban centres, including Masvingo. David Coltart of MDC-N for example lost his seat to a MDC-T candidate. Political and personal differences, combined with narrow regionalism and factionalism, provided a perfect opportunity for ZANU-PF, despite it also being divided and weak.

This was Zimbabwe’s first electronic, Internet age election. There was hope that these mechanisms – checking voter registration, crowd mapping election violations, posting votes, monitoring election sites and mapping results – would bring greater transparency and accountability. There was an impressive array of engagement, from the 7000 ‘citizen monitors’ deployed by the ZESN to the websites of  Sokwanele, MyVote and Simukai. Twitter and Facebook pages have gone wild, with intensive commentary and debate not least via the Baba Jukwa pages.

But, in the end, it didn’t seem to have an impact on the legitimacy and credibility of the process. Too many questions remained unanswered, and confusion still prevails, as the various ‘independent’ observers and monitored contradicted each other, declaring either the elections broadly free and fair or discredited by foul play.

The international media has as a result of all this also been deeply confused. No-one is quite sure what to make of it all. As Andrew Harding of the BBC commented, there is now a battle over the narrative of the election, not the specific results. Some of the media had decided what the narrative was before it was held, but there has been some thoughtful commentary too. Lydia Polgreen of the NYT was typically nuanced, bringing in the land dimension into one of her pieces. The FT had a good article on the key role of the military. David Smith of the Guardian had a few good pieces too. Also, African Arguments posted several good commentaries in the build up, including by Brian Raftopolous and Simukai Tinhu. And then there were the bloggers and the twitter sphere, with #zimelection carrying all sorts of commentary and links; some sensible and sound, some weird and whacky.

The political uncertainty that these elections have delivered means that, sadly once again, the immediate future is in the balance. Whoever individual Zimbabweans voted for, the final overall outcome may not be what anyone wanted – which was peace and stability. As a friend commented on the phone from Gwanda just now: “It’s trouble again”.  Let’s hope that a spirit of accommodation and compromise prevails.

In the next period at least, ZANU-PF can organise the succession from Mugabe from a position of strength, and the opposition will have to regroup again, probably under new leadership. The political landscape has certainly changed with this election, but the full implications still remain unclear.

UPDATE: Since this blog was published there have been two very good comment pieces in the Guardian by Knox Chitiyo and Blessing Miles Tendi. Both are well worth a read:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/05/zimbabwe-inconvenient-election-truth

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/aug/05/robert-mugabe-zimbabwe-election-zanu-pf

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

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A media glasnost?

The international media has had an appalling record of balanced reporting on Zimbabwe over the last 12 years. A single narrative, repeating the myths we attempted to demolish in our book is endlessly repeated. All is disaster, the land reform was a catastrophe and punitive sanctions are the only route to punishing Mugabe’s rogue regime. Even the move to a coalition government and the stabilisation of the economy gets barely a mention.

Journalists complain that getting stories accepted on Zimbabwe is really difficult, especially if they run against this storyline. One well-known reporter commented that the British newspapers they send articles to will only accept ‘white farmer’ stories, ones which take an explicitly racial angle on the land issue. Another observed that editors get worried when a deluge of negative comments get attached to articles which even hint at a different story. When our book came out journalists were astonished that there was another perspective. They had no hint of an alternative from their local contacts, and our findings were genuinely news to them.

We can see quite easily how distorted media coverage emerges. Local contacts are not hooked into research networks and repeat what their paymasters expect to hear. Journalists are always up against copy deadlines and most international news outlets do not have the resources for special field investigations. Editors avoid contentious issues if this has the potential to bring trouble. And repeating the standard line brings in the money for the stringers and freelancers. Of course in Zimbabwe, strict government control of international media reporting, at least until recently, didn’t help, and added to the problem, fuelling misperceptions.

This international media coverage, especially in the UK, has created a particular view of Zimbabwe, often way out of kilter with ground realities. But is this now changing? Is there a new media glasnost emerging around reporting on Zimbabwe? In the last week two major articles by two very different but well respected journalists have appeared: one in the UK Daily Telegraph and one in the New York Times.

The first by Peter Oborne argues that it’s time Zimbabwe needs to reassess the UK position on sanctions. He argues that the UK Foreign Office under William Hague is developing a pragmatic approach to Zimbabwe, and showing a clear shift from the shrill diplomacy of earlier periods under the Labour regimes. Echoes of that were evident in the House of Parliament in an intervention by Peter Hain, arguing for yet more sanctions. By contrast the Foreign Office is beginning to realise (belatedly) that the sanctions serve no diplomatic purpose, and even have the opposite effect. Zimbabwe, Oborne argues, needs to be ‘brought in from the cold’. Even the language used is from the Cold War era. Glasnost indeed.

The second piece appeared on the front page of the New York Times (remarkable enough for any African story), and was penned by the NYT Johannesburg bureau chief, Lydia Polgreen. It is based on some field visits to tobacco farms and auction floors in Zimbabwe and suggests, following the argument of our work, that there is a ‘golden lining’ to the land reforms, as many thousands of small farmers are benefiting, even if there have been some important downsides. The case of the booming tobacco sector is used, but the wider argument is made forcefully that a rethink is required.

These two articles have attracted plenty of commentary, much of it negative, but they show a brave approach to critical journalism often shied away from by others. To their credit the BBC have engaged with our work, both through interviews and articles, and most recently with a field visit, resulting in a Crossing Continents programme. But as I have commented before, the BBC ‘balance’ is sometimes inappropriate; for example counterposing an unsubstantiated commentary from the Commercial Farmers’ Union with mountains of research evidence as if they were equivalent. What makes these two recent contributions stand out is their timing (around renewed debates about ‘sanctions’), their location (the NYT and the Daily Telegraph) and their positioning (an unequivocal stance which challenges the status quo view).

The media glasnost is to be welcomed. Let’s hope the old Soviet-style era of controlled storylines on Zimbabwe is over and a proper debate can begin.

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