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Zimbabwe: A Post-Election Assessment

On Wednesday, April 9, the Africa Program hosted a discussion on the recent Zimbabwean elections held on March 29, 2008.

Date & Time

Apr. 9, 2008
10:00am – 11:30am ET


Michelle Gavin, International Affairs Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations;
Sydney Masamvu, Analyst, International Crisis Group;
Patrick Merloe, Director, Programs on Elections and Political Processes, National Democratic Institute;
Steve McDonald (moderator), Consulting Program Director, Africa Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

On Wednesday, April 9, the Africa Program hosted a discussion on the recent Zimbabwean elections held on March 29, 2008. Preliminary results indicate that the ruling Zanu-PF party may have lost its parliamentary majority for the first time in 28 years, while the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) has refused to release the results of the presidential election. Although it is widely believed that the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, won more votes than the incumbent Robert Mugabe, it is uncertain if Tsvangirai secured at least 50 percent of the vote needed to prevent a run-off election. The ZEC delay in releasing the results has led to widespread concerns of election rigging and fraud. Under President Mugabe, prolonged economic decline in Zimbabwe has resulted in hyper-inflation, massive unemployment, and the departure of hundreds of thousands of citizens.

Having just arrived in Washington from Zimbabwe where he served as an election observer, Sydney Masamvu provided a detailed account of what he called the "silent coup of the ballot." Masamvu declared that it was quite clear that Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party, had won the presidential election; the only remaining question was by what percentage. Based on sources on the ground, Masamvu speculated that Tsvangirai received around 48 percent of the vote and that a run-off election would be needed. According to Zimbabwean law, run-off elections are required to take place within 20 days of the previous election, leaving a period of less than 10 days for the parties to reestablish their campaigns. Given the time constraint, Masamvu believes that Mugabe is likely to evoke his presidential powers and cite a lack of resources to postpone elections an addition 30-90 days. This delay will be part of an intentional strategy aimed at "sealing off" rural areas in order to intimidate many of the MDC supporters.

Considering the situational factors, Masamvu surmised that Mugabe is likely to follow one of three options: (1) pursue a militarized and violent run-off campaign; (2) hold a free and fair election; or (3) utilize the time between elections to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement. Unfortunately, Masamvu believes that Mugabe is unlikely to risk the chance of a humiliating defeat in an open run-off and is more likely to heed to pressure from the military and Joint Operational Command to maintain his strangle hold on power.

Michelle Gavin commented on the uniqueness of the current situation in Zimbabwe. She stated that the period of silence following the elections from the ZEC and Zanu-PF party indicate that the ruling party is perhaps not as monolithic or united as previously believed. For the first time in recent history it seems that there is a lack of consensus at the top level and that "cracks in the façade" might be starting to emerge. Although Gavin believes that a political solution to the situation is important, she cautioned against the potential dangers of a power-sharing agreement. Such agreements tend to accommodate political elites in lieu of the interests of the voters, leaving their social needs and underlying tensions to simmer.

Speaking on the appropriate international response to the current situation, Gavin stated that it is important to move beyond calls for the simple release of the election results. Western and donor countries have limited leverage in this situation and it is important for regional voices to be more "forward leaning." However, this leaves the international community with a tricky balancing act between condemning the current situation in Zimbabwe and leaving enough room for African voices to speak out.

Gavin concluded by presenting, as she sees them, the options available to the MDC at this point. While there has been a plea to the international community for assistance, domestically few options exist in the face of the current "machine of intimidation" assembled by the ruling party. Unfortunately, recourse to the courts is unlikely to produce any expedient or satisfactory result and the MDC party faces the critical challenges how to both assert their rights and also speak up for the citizens who voted for them.

Patrick Merloe agreed with the earlier evaluations and provided some explanation of the election results. Merloe believes that Mugabe and the Zanu-PF had been "caught by surprise" by the election results. This surprise can be explained by a confluence of factors, including: the presence of a divided opposition within the MDC heading into the elections; the lack of a history of systematic election observation by civil society in Zimbabwe, despite several attempts by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN); and the fractured presence of the international community, including the failed mediation attempts by SADC and President Mbeki.

Merloe also outlined several factors that help explain the success of the MDC: (1) the economic situation in Zimbabwe caused widespread dissatisfaction resulting in a united demand for change; (2) the ability of the MDC to reach previous "no go" areas in the countryside provided newfound bases of support; (3) better organization on the part of the MDC helped the party reach all available constituencies; (4) improvements in election monitoring helped secure a more democratic election than previously experienced.

Merloe reported that according to the numbers provided by ZESN, Mugabe clearly lost the election. ZESN numbers indicate that Tsvangirai received in the area of 47-51 percent of the vote, while Mugabe received between 39-44 percent. The delay in publicizing the results leads observers to surmise that Zanu-PF was dissatisfied with the results and Merloe believes that the regime is setting the stage for a rigged run-off election. Merloe concluded with the observation that while Mugabe may be able to overcome this present challenge to his rule, his days left in office are numbered.

Drafted by Mathias Kjaer, intern.


Hosted By

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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