Zimbabwe has joined the growing ranks of the world’s electoral autocracies

At the inaugural ceremony, Mnangagwa reached out to the opposition and urged the nation as a whole to unite [Aaron Ufumeli/EPA-EFE]

Electoral autocracy has replaced democracy’s standard free and fair election method in much of the troubled world. In Cambodia, an “election” took place on Sunday in which many opposition parties were dissolved or barred from competing against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party; in Guatemala, the government suspended one of the two parties standing in August’s second-round presidential runoff; in Senegal, President Macky Sall’s main opponent was sentenced to jail last month. China, Russia and Iran are autocracies in barely-there disguise, and it is increasingly clear that Egypt, Tunisia and El Salvador are sham democracies, too.

Zimbabwe, too, is compromised, with a general election set for Aug. 23. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s heavy-handed authoritarian government has controlled the destinies of Zimbabwe’s 12 million people since the 2017 bloodless coup that ended dictator Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule. But Mr. Mnangagwa had been Mr. Mugabe’s long-serving adjutant and the orchestrator of the massive corruption that has engulfed the country and benefited the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriot Front (ZANU-PF).

Now, Mr. Mnangagwa and his vice-president, military commandant Constantino Chiwenga, are firmly in charge. Their seeming functionaries in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission have faced criticism about the legitimacy and accuracy of its voters’ roll, and its gerrymandering has devalued urban parliamentary seats (where half of the population resides) while doubling the number of rural seats. (Whereas about 25,000 voters fill each “rural” constituency, about 50,000 people are crammed into each urban seat.)

The military, obedient to Mr. Chiwenga, has made sure in previous elections that rural chiefs and headmen marshal their followers to cast ballots for ZANU-PF candidates. That method will this time once more reduce opposition turnout and votes – though it should be said that there has not been a fully free and fair election in Zimbabwe since a constitutional referendum in 2000. Cheating, in other words, is expected, as well as outright rigging of the results, which occurred blatantly in 2008.

This year, the government has cracked down on criticism of Mr. Mnangagwa’s rule. By passing the draconian Patriotic Bill into law earlier this month, Zimbabwe broadly outlawed any speech or commentary that could be deemed “unpatriotic,” without specifying what that meant. It appears that anyone speaking against government rule or in favour of Western sanctions can be arrested. Even lunch and dinner gatherings to which I was privy in Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare last week were chilled by the looseness of the law.

To make opposition operations even more untenable, the ZANU-PF-dominated parliament recently approved a plan to increase the fees to run for political office by 20 times: to US$1,000 to stand as a candidate for parliament, and US$20,000 to appear on the presidential ballot. These are huge sums in an impoverished country like Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, amid reports of gold-smuggling and profit-skimming by people associated with the ruling party as well as alleged corruption involving diamond-mining revenue, Zimbabwe’s inflation was running at more than 175 per cent this month. The local dollar has weakened by more than 80 per cent against the U.S. dollar since the start of the year as the country’s central bank prints its own scrip feverishly.

Zimbabwe also exports tobacco, ferrochrome, platinum and coal, and is exploiting a large lithium deposit. China, Russia and Belarus are big players in the economy, with large shares in resource profiteering going to Mr. Mnangagwa, Mr. Chiwenga and a range of their associates and family members. Some experts have told me that corruption is even more blatant and brazen than under the rightly lamented rule of Mr. Mugabe and his enablers.

Under Nelson Chamisa, who came in second place in the 2018 elections, the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) is campaigning against the ZANU-PF juggernaut, but with existing weights around its ankles while being handicapped financially.

There is a sense of fatalism about the likely outcome – a likely farce. ZANU-PF holds too many of the cards to expect a fair vote, and police have even been breaking up CCC political events.

With the government’s hands firmly on Zimbabwe’s electoral scales, expert observers said that they would be surprised if the CCC won more than 43 of the 210 parliamentary seats being contested next month. Mr. Mnangagwa is not likely to forfeit his presidency either, no matter what the real vote count is. And the light of democracy worldwide will continue to dim.

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His latest book is Overcoming the Oppressors.

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