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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 87-101

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Zimbabwe's Hijacked Election

John Makumbe

From 9 to 11 March 2002, more than three million Zimbabwean voters went to the polls—often standing patiently in line for many hours—to cast their ballots for the office of president. In all likelihood a majority of these voters, especially in larger cities such as Bulawayo and Harare, the capital, were hoping to bring a nonviolent end to the despotic two-decade-old rule of 78-year-old President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). The means to this goal would be the lawful election to the presidency of Mugabe's main challenger, former labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In the event, the voters would see their hopes dashed, but only after the regime deployed tactics whose sheer brutality and underhandedness were without precedent even in the troubled postindependence history of this southern African republic of 11.4 million people. When the fraudulent "contest" was over, Mugabe was declared the winner while Tsvangirai, braving the threat of treason charges, rejected the officially announced result and called for a new vote to be held under close international supervision.

A number of countries and international organizations had sent teams to observe the election, but these groups came to different conclusions. The Commonwealth Observer Group, along with the Norwegians, the Ghanaians, and the Parliamentary Forum of the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—joined by nearly every Zimbabwean civic observer team—strongly condemned what it saw, arguing that the state and ruling party had created a climate of violence and fear [End Page 87] that had impeded Zimbabweans in the exercise of their democratic rights.

Among the critical reports filed by independent observers, that of the Commonwealth Mission was the most damaging to the regime, and led the Commonwealth to suspend Zimbabwe from its councils for a year. This was in addition to the sanctions imposed on Mugabe and some 70 of his close associates, which included travel restrictions, the freezing of party and private assets located in developed countries, and possible deportation of the children and dependents of these individuals back to Zimbabwe. These sanctions have already begun to have an impact, but the notion that they will make Mugabe capitulate and agree to a rerun of the election is a doubtful proposition at best.

Dishearteningly, teams from Nigeria, South Africa, Namibia, and the Organization of African Unity called the election free and fair. The Namibian and OAU groups went even further by claiming that the official tally—which claimed, quite incredibly, that Mugabe had bested Tsvangirai by almost 464,000 votes out of 3.1 million ballots cast—truly reflected the wishes of the people of Zimbabwe.

At the time of this writing in September 2002, a defiant Robert Mugabe was overseeing more strongarm takeovers of white-owned commercial farms (far and away the country's most productive, and a major source of employment) by ZANU-PF militants and "war veterans," and was having Morgan Tsvangirai charged with high treason. All this was occurring, moreover, against the backdrop of a disastrous decline in food production and rise in rural employment under the combined pressure of a regionwide drought and the farm seizures. How did things come to such a desperate pass in a country that had once been southern Africa's breadbasket, and which had since the late 1990s spawned a large and impressive array of civic and activist groups devoted to pressing the causes of democracy, good governance, and human rights?

Background to Disaster

Zimbabwe gained its independence from Britain in 1980 after a long armed struggle led by ZANU-PF. Mugabe has been the only chief executive that the country has known since then, first as premier and then, after he changed the constitution, as president. Elections have been held regularly since independence, and ZANU-PF has always won them, usually by lopsided margins. In recent years, however, Mugabe has watched his popularity plummet to the point where his party lost a February 2000 referendum on...