Zimbabwe’s elections

This Wednesday, Zimbabwe’s highest court will hear six election-related cases this week. First among them is the request by Justice and Legal Affairs Minister Patrick Chinamasa to extend the election date from July 31 to August 14. The case is the next step in “one of [the] worst political crises since the disputed 2008 presidential elections,” according to The Irish Times.

This move for an extension follows a previous court order, which ruled that national elections must take place before July 31st. The decision prompted President Mugabe to invoke his presidential powers and set an early election date, a move that violates to the constitution and the Global Political Agreement, signed in 2008. The Zimbabwean opposition is crying foul, and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is threatening to boycott early elections.

In an effort to avoid a repeat of the violence surrounding Zimbabwe’s 2008 elections, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) held an emergency summit on June 15 to find a solution to the contentious timing. While SADC respected the court’s ruling to hold the elections on July 31, they recommended that Zimbabwe ask the court for a delay of two weeks. This is the case before the court on Wednesday. If the court agrees, elections will be held around August 14. On his Africa in Transition blog, the Council on Foreign Relations’ expert John Campbell noted that the two-week delay “seems to be little more than symbolic.”

Even if the court rules to push the election date to August 14, the timeline for the upcoming election is still short, and does not allow for the much-needed security, media and electoral reforms ahead of the poll. Instead, the status quo will remain in which media access is one-sided, security forces actively promote a culture of fear, and necessary safeguards to assure Zimbabweans the vote count is not rigged are lacking.

The United States’ response

U.S. Ambassador Bruce Wharton expressed his concern about whether the current elections will be free and fair, criticizing voter intimidation and political parties’ lack of access to broadcast media.

At last week’s Senate hearing on Zimbabwe, Acting Assistant Secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, Donald Yamamoto, echoed these concerns. Acting Assistant Secretary Yamamoto said he opposes the prospect of “holding elections without providing adequate time for voter registration, inspection of voters’ rolls, other needed electoral and democratic reforms – particularly reforms of the Public Order and Security Act, media reforms, and security sector reforms.” During questioning, Yamamoto added that the U.S. might review its policies, including harsher sanctions, should there be an unsuccessful election.

Noticeably absent in U.S. government statements on the current election prospects is a push for any security sector reform and suggested steps to prevent another cycle of election violence. Credit goes to Senator Chris Coons (D-DW), who, in his questioning at this week’s hearing, asked the State Department about the linkage between the diamond sector and funding for the security sector. The military presence in mines persists, raising concerns regarding human rights abuses committed by and illicit diamond revenues moving to the security sector.  In response, Acting Assistant Secretary Yamamoto reaffirmed the importance of the Kimberly process, in conjunct with U.S. sanction on 113 Zimbabwean individuals and state entities, in ensuring progress on governance and human rights in Zimbabwean diamond sector.

Security sector and human rights

Given ZANU-PF’s recent history of electoral violence, effective security sector reform will be key to any democratic steps in Zimbabwe. Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Dewa Mavhinga testified at the Senate hearing that any legitimate and peaceful elections in Zimbabwe will require neutral, professional conduct by the three departments of Zimbabwe’s state security forces: the Defense Forces, the police and the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO).

His testimony builds on the disturbing trends HRW outlines in its recent report “The Elephant in the Room: Reforming the Security Sector Ahead of Zimbabwe’s Elections.” HRW shows that all three department of Zimbabwe’s security forces have repeatedly and publicly aligned with ZANU–PF, and are implicated in abductions, torture, beatings and harassment of perceived ZANU–PF adversaries. According to the report, “There is an urgent need, ahead of the elections, for Zimbabwe’s security forces to be drastically reformed, to create a political environment conducive for holding nonviolent and credible elections.”

Mark L. Schneider, Senior Vice President of the International Crisis Group, echoed the concerns in his testimony. He blamed Zimbabwean security forces for participating in “politics of fear,” created by a legacy of abuse, institutional bias and systemic impunity. Schneider called for an “African solution to an African problem,” and he favored the deployment of SADC police officers to work with the Zimbabwean police prior to, during and after elections. These guest police officers would report to SADC monitoring and observation units to ensure there is no violence or intimidation.

To date, ZANU-PF has blocked any security sector reforms. Continued U.S. and international pressure will be necessary to prevent gross human rights violations. Unfortunately, it may be too late for free and fair elections in Zimbabwe this year. As the Center for Global Development’s Vice President Todd Moss pointed out during his testimony, “as a result of the systematic campaign of fear and intimidation” legitimate election results are likely impossible. 

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