Robert Mugabe’s reelection as president has shocked many in Zimbabwe and the world, and in recent days has stirred a storm of mixed congratulations and recrimination among leaders in the southern Africa region, who seem unsure how to deal with the strong allegations of voter fraud.
The situation of a possibly stolen election and an inability to agree on how to deal with it could be divisive in the region, analysts say, and undermine needed confidence.
While the African Union and the regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) bloc initially described the elections as free and fair, a host of players in those groupings are now walking back those appraisals – though few believe that Mr. Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe with impunity for 33 years, would step down of his own accord.
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, who has been SADC’s point-man on Zimbabwe, congratulated Mugabe soon after the July 31 election, which was later announced as a landslide for Mugabe. But Mr. Zuma now finds himself accused of complicity in the alleged rigging of the elections by his country’s main opposition Democratic Alliance.
“President Zuma’s congratulations are not only extremely premature, given the very serious irregularities that have been noted in the elections,” said Ian Davidson, the opposition shadow foreign minister, adding, “But they shamefully legitimize undemocratic practices during elections, and send a message that significant irregularities will be tolerated by his administration.”
A spokesman for Zuma later denied that South Africa had given a seal of approval to Mugabe's victory.
“We did not say that the Zimbabwean election was fair, we said it was free … we did not use ‘fair’ or ‘credible’,” argued Ebrahim Ebrahim, South African deputy minister for international relations.
Yesterday, Tanzania’s foreign minister, Bernard Member, a key figure in SADC, used the same “free” but not necessarily “fair” formula, telling reporters that “we did not say it [the election] was fair.”
The current phrase of art now publicly repeated by those who supported the official outcome is, “free and peaceful,” since in Zimbabwe last week there was no repeat of the bloodshed of the last elections there in 2008.
Yet with the Zimbabwe opposition, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, alleging that some 1 million voters were “disenfranchised” on July 31, critics question how “free” the vote actually was, and whether a peaceful election can substitute for a fair election.
Yesterday, Botswana’s President Ian Khama, a longtime Mugabe critic, joined calls for an audit of the elections on the grounds that they were improperly conducted. His government had sent 80 observers to Zimbabwe.
“There is a need for an independent audit of the just concluded electoral process in Zimbabwe,” said Mr. Khama on Monday, adding that, “There is no doubt that what has been revealed so far by our observers cannot be considered as an acceptable standard for free and fair elections in SADC. The SADC should never create the undesirable precedent of permitting exceptions to its own rules.”
Botswana and others are pushing for the next SADC summit, this August in Lilongwe, Malawi, to place Zimbabwe’s election debate on its agenda.
“Mugabe’s victory might not be reversed, but the Zimbabwean crisis will remain a key agenda in SADC meetings,” said political analyst Mthulisi Ndlovu.
“Countries like South Africa and Botswana will be hardest hit by the floods of Zimbabweans that will soon be fleeing the unchecked political violence that usually follows Zanu PF rule, while the economic decline will get worse,” he stated.
Western nations like the United States, Great Britain, and others have described the Zimbabwe vote as at least questionable.
Meanwhile, with a plunge in Zimbabwe’s stock value this week, and with some of Mugabe’s confidants describing an expansion of the policy of seizing foreign owned banks and businesses and bestowing them with a majority share of ownership by black Africans – a policy previously called "land reform" and used to force white farmers off their farms – many ordinary Zimbabweans are hunkering down for more possible sanctions and economic pain.
One analyst, Jacob Chiwara, said Mugabe’s victory will be divisive in the southern African region.
“To the modern-day leaders like Khama, Mugabe’s rigging of elections means that the SADC and the African Union remain toothless in their attempt to resolve African problems, while to the so-called liberation movements, he remains welcome,” said Mr. Chiwara.
In the dynamics of southern Africa, regional or national liberation movements have remained friendly and in close touch. There is an understanding among Mugabe’s Zanu PF, South Africa’s African National Congress, Namibia’s SWAPO and Mozambique’s FRELIMO.
The ANC publicly indicated two months ago that it would help Zanu PF win this election.
Internationally, the United States has already expressed concern over the alleged electoral fraud and this could renew the longstanding conflict that had subsided during the coalition government.
With Mugabe’s continuing stance of criticizing the West, sanctions could soon be tightened and Zimbabwe thrown into a new form of economic turmoil.
Inside Zimbabwe, the situation is not clear but could deteriorate since Mr. Tsvangirai has said that he will not, as before, participate in a coalition government.
Already, many Zimbabweans are dismayed by Mugabe’s claim to have scored over 61 percent of the vote, when many polls showed the odds were heavily staked against the 89-year-old, who has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.
That Mugabe’s Zanu PF swept all but three of the 24 seats in Matabeleland, where he was responsible for killing more than 20, 000 civilians in his military “Gukurahundi Operation” in the 1980s.
Civil society groups say that part of the evidence the elections were “stolen” lies in the shocked mood among people on the ground.
“Most Zimbabweans were and are still shocked by the outcome. In terms of what needs to be done, there are mixed feelings: some just want to get on with their lives while some feel they should express their discontent through protest,” said Joy Mabenge, a regional coordinator for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition. “It looks like now and in the near future, many will prefer adjusting to this hard fact and waiting to see what happens next.”
The number of Zimbabwean expats or those in exile numbers some 4 million. Analysts say this sizable group is not likely to return home over concern that the repression and economic decline that moved them to leave in the first place, will continue.