I want to talk about an African election. The ruling party, in power since independence, was not shy about using the power of incumbency to ensure it remained in place. It splashed out pre-election largesse to supporters. Its presidential candidate used military aircraft to traverse the country. Ruling party-supporting businessmen supplied traditional leaders with automobiles to help ensure their support. And more broadly, the country was gerrymandered in such a way that rural districts supporting the party in power had outsized influence, more or less ensuring its perpetual control.
Sounds pretty dire. But despite this atmosphere, no Western observers criticised Botswana’s 2009 election, or any of its other polls before or since. In fact, Botswana is held up as Africa’s democratic success stories despite conditions that more or less ensure the ruling Botswana Democratic Party remains in power. This is not a slap at Botswana. The country is one of Africa’s best governed, and the BDP’s victory was credible and reflected the will of the people. But the bigger point here is that pre-election environments across Africa (and, really, across the world) are by no means perfect, and often give significant advantages to incumbents.
Now let’s turn to a more pertinent election, Zimbabwe’s 30 July poll, in which President Emmerson Mnangagwa won just over 50 percent of the vote, and his ruling ZANU-PF won a more than two-thirds majority in Parliament. The pre-election period was peaceful and free of violent intimidation that had plagued polls over the past two decades. Election day unfolded without a hitch. The opposition contested the results, but even the independent Zimbabwe Election Support Network noted that its projections tracked with the official results. On 24 August, Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court upheld the result, allowing Mnangagwa to be inaugurated as President.
Let’s be honest: Zimbabwe’s election was not perfect. And the post-election environment was seriously marred by the shooting of six protesters by soldiers that had been called out to control crowds that had gathered after opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa claimed victory before results were released. However, the electoral landscape was light years better than that around any poll held in the country since at least the mid-1990s, and far more credible and well-run than many polls on which Washington is happy to endorse. This is because Zimbabwe is viewed in Washington through the lens of the classic ‘Star Wars’ dichotomy of a noble and enlightened resistance – the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – standing up to a corrupt and repressive empire.
However, things have changed, and this view is outdated. Mnangagwa is not a continuation of Robert Mugabe’s repressive rule and disastrous economic policies. Since taking power after Mugabe’s November ouster, Mnangagwa has taken such radical steps as rolling back policies that demanded 51 percent local ownership of businesses, introducing bankable leases for commercial farmland, starting the process to privatise unprofitable state-owned businesses, and cracking down on pernicious corruption. The business community, which long backed the MDC, is giddy; investors have a direct track to the President, who has worked to fast-track projects. Mnangagwa has continually claimed his desire to transform Zimbabwe into the ‘Singapore of Africa’, and he knows that only pro-market policies will spur the growth Zimbabwe so desperately needs. Lastly, he wasted no time setting up a credible commission of enquiry – headed by respected former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe – to look into the shooting of protesters and determine who was at fault.
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