Earlier this month, Zimbabwe released the results of its most recent presidential election. which saw longtime leader Robert Mugabe being challenged by former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in the first election since the violence-plagued election of 2008. While there were many concerns that this year’s election might see the same state sponsored violence that sparked a refugee crisis in neighboring South Africa five years ago, these fears did not come to fruition. The official results are that Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, captured 61% of the vote and 158 seats in parliament, while Tsvangirai’s MDC took 34% of the vote and 50 parliament seats, giving the former a majority in the chamber.
Almost immediately after the results were announced, a number of Western governments and domestic observers disputed the legitimacy of the election, which had also been a concern in the lead-up to voting. A number of calls have been made for a recount of the election, most notably by Tsvangirai, who referred to the election as “stolen” and has filed a lawsuit against the government. While Mugabe has denied these accusations in his usual bombastic style, the accusations made against election officials appear to be serious enough to have led at least one election official to resign in protest.
The difference in African and Western reactions to the election is especially pronounced. It is not simply governments that have weighed in on the outcome, but official monitoring bodies as well. The result is a clash that seems to pit the Western world not just against the government of Zimbabwe, but of most African governments and multinational bodies as well.
Many Western governments – particularly the United States and the UK – have called into question the legitimacy of the election, citing irregularities in counting and registration flaws. Their criticism does not go far beyond this however, with the prevailing theme of the Western response being relief that bloodshed was not seen the way it was in the 2008 election. It should be noted that Western observers were blocked by the government in Harare from overseeing the election, which feared that their observations would be disingenuous.
In contrast, with the exception of Botswana, other African governments have not called for any kind of inquiry into the election procedure. Leaders from South Africa, Mozambique and Nigeria have gone so far as to congratulate Mugabe on his election win. Jacob Zuma’s pronouncement of faith in the result, as well as an urging for the people of Zimbabwe to “accept the outcome of the elections as election observers reported it” is not without its own political motivations, however. South Africa bore the brunt of the refugee crisis that engulfed Zimbabwe after the elections in 2008, and is still fearful of a similar event occurring again. The African Union’s response to the election was that it was “free and fair”, while the South African Development Community (SADC), which had serious qualms about the state of Zimbabwean democracy in the weeks leading up to the election described it as “free and peaceful”. Both bodies have urged Tsvangirai to accept the election result.
The calls to fully reassess the election are unlikely to come to fruition, much less change the outcome, regardless of the legitimacy of the claims. The strongest regional bodies that could have put more serious pressure on Zimbabwe to revisit the results, the AU and the SADC, have both given the election their seal of approval. While the influence of the West is not negligible, both the United States and the European Union have already placed targeted sanctions on officials within the government. The latter has also pledged to remove their remaining sanctions if SADC ruled the elections to be free and fair, which is what has occurred. Beyond calling for the AU and SADC to revisit their results or removing foreign aid to the country, there is little they can do.
The impact of this landslide victory for Mugabe also cannot be understated. ZANU-PF now has an even greater hold over the country, and will be able to pursue policies with fewer bureaucratic hindrances from other political parties. There is now even less of a chance for democratic reform in the country, now that Mugabe has further solidified his power and gone through this election without serious challenges from the AU or SADC. This election and its outcome also set a precedent for the ability of the West to help influence the growth of democracy in Africa. Many governments called upon SADC to institute reforms long before the election took place, which Mugabe ignored. When Western governments tried to put in place election overseers, Mugabe simply barred them from the country. Finally, when the West called upon Mugabe and the regional organizations that oversaw the election to revisit it, these calls went unheeded. In short, the West accomplished little here. Though election violence was thankfully avoided, all of the West’s fears will have been realized if the election is proven to have been stolen.