By Michael Cohen, Brian Latham, and Desmond Kumbuka
Just days after the election that was supposed to underpin a political and economic revival in Zimbabwe, things have gone horribly wrong.
As results emerged from the cavernous Harare International Conference Centre Wednesday showing the ruling party extending its 38-year grip on power, hundreds of opposition supporters clad in red party T-shirts trashed the streets of the capital outside, barricaded roads with rocks and set two vehicles alight. Riot police moved in with batons, tear gas and water cannons, followed by scores of army troops bearing assault rifles.
During several hours of running battles, troops fired live rounds at fleeing protesters as a military helicopter circled overhead. By the time darkness fell and an uneasy calm was restored, six people were dead and scores injured.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa blamed the chaos on the opposition Movement for Democratic Change — it declared victory in the election before the results were in. The government had gone out of its way to ensure a peaceful election and any disappointment at losing the vote shouldn’t be allowed to degenerate into hooliganism, he said.
“Both the ruling party and the opposition are culpable for making inflammatory statements and stoking emotions,” said Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe. “They should appreciate that emotions run high during an election and should temper their statements.”
The final count from the legislative elections showed the ruling party winning almost 70 percent of the directly elected seats in the National Assembly. Priscilla Chigumba, a judge who chairs the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, said she hadn’t received any official complaints about the vote and batted away suggestions that the outcome could be rigged.
Results from the presidential race are due later on Thursday or Friday, and given the ruling party’s margin of victory in the legislative vote, Mnangagwa is almost certain to win. Harare remained on edge Thursday as residents braced for more trouble, with most shops remaining shut.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.
Last November, jubilant Harare residents took to the same streets in their thousands to cheer the military for ousting Robert Mugabe, who was 93 at the time and had held power in the southern African nation since the end of white-minority rule in 1980. His approval of the violent seizure of thousands of white-owned farms starting in 2000 was the trigger for economic collapse, hyperinflation and mass emigration, and left a legacy of rampant unemployment and poverty, a crumbling infrastructure and crippling cash shortages.
Mnangagwa, who’d been Mugabe’s right-hand man for decades and served as his spy chief and deputy, won control of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front and took power after the president was forced to resign.
Mnangagwa promised a new Zimbabwe, reaching out to international investors and giving assurances that the elections would be credible. Western observers, who’d been banned for the previous three disputed votes, were invited to scrutinize proceedings, and the police and military kept a low profile during the largely peaceful campaign.
Despite the MDC’s complaints that the voters’ roll was flawed, that ballot papers weren’t properly controlled and the electoral commission was biased, it was able to campaign in rural districts that had been no-go areas for it for two decades and drew thousand of people to rallies. Opinion polls conducted by research company Afrobarometer indicated that the race for the presidency between Mnangagwa, 75, and MDC leader Nelson Chamisa, 40, was too close to call.
By almost all accounts, balloting proceeded smoothly and the election won praise in preliminary assessments by observers from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community — continental groups with a long tradition of being loath to criticize their member states.
The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, a local association of 34 civil rights and religious organizations that deployed about 6,500 elections monitors, was far less impressed. It found that the ruling party used state resources to campaign and food aid to entice people to vote for it and enjoyed more favorable media coverage. It also said the final voters’ roll was released too late to analyze it.
Western observers were equally critical, with European Union monitors saying there wasn’t a “level playing field” in the election. The International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute from the U.S. said that improvements in the political environment probably weren’t enough to convince voters that they could oppose the ruling party without fear of violence or other retribution.
No matter how the political upheaval plays out, the election has been compromised by the performance of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, casting a cloud over the legitimacy of the next administration, according to Veritas, a Harare-based legal rights group.
“Will everyone be able to see that the elections have been verifiably conducted according to the constitution so that the outcome is acceptable to all?” it said in a statement. “Regrettably no, because the ZEC has shown so little transparency that there cannot be sufficient criteria for verifiability.”
— With assistance by Godfrey Marawanyika