On Wednesday, when troops in Zimbabwe opened fire on thousands of people protesting a marred election two days before, it was a shot heard round the world. The violent crackdown was a clear signal that President Emmerson Mnangagwa had not delivered on a promise to Western countries of a credible, corruption-free election.
Instead, Zimbabwe, like many African countries, may be further poised to embrace China and its proposed world order, which is essentially this: Don’t worry about democratic credentials or human rights, let’s just keep doing business without meddling in each other’s internal affairs.
In many ways, Zimbabwe’s election, which came eight months after the military ouster of longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, was a contest between the current world order, designed by the West after World War II, and the emerging one of a rising China.
The West was offering loans and investments from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other international creditors if Zimbabwe held a fair election and started to tackle corruption.
China preferred the current regime, no matter what, which would allow it to further exploit the country’s abundant minerals and rich farmland while bringing Zimbabwe into its newly created international organizations. Both Mr. Mnangagwa and Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, leader of the armed forces, had visited China in the run-up to the election.
Zimbabwe’s postelection problems are still unfinished. Mnangagwa’s ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, was declared the winner in the parliamentary race by the distrusted electoral commission. The results of the presidential contest have been delayed, raising suspicions among supporters of his main opponent, Nelson Chamisa. In the meantime, foreign observers found plenty wrong with the election process.
Zimbabwe remains a test case of the two views of world order, not only because of this election but because its economy is in desperate straits. It does not have its own currency and must rely mostly on US dollars. Its people somehow endure with hyperinflation and high unemployment, a result of mismanagement and corruption under Mr. Mugabe.
For a decade, China has been the country’s biggest investor. Yet popular resentment against Chinese influence led the opposition candidate to take an anti-China position in the campaign. This week’s protests about the election were also a statement about China’s antidemocratic approach to the rest of the world.
As events play out in Zimbabwe, the ideals of democracy may still win out, reinforcing the success of the postwar order. At the least, the final result should not be decided with bullets but in a peaceful consensus that affirms basic freedoms.