Is political crisis brewing in Zimbabwe?

A report from the International Crisis Group says today's election may be President Robert Mugabe's last stand – but he will go down fighting.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
An election observer looks on during Presidential and parliamentary elections in Harare, Zimbabwe, Wednesday, July 31, 2013. Some international observers are warning of a potential political crisis in the aftermath of the polling.

•A version of this post first appeared on the blog Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

On July 29 the International Crisis Group (ICG) issued an important report, Zimbabwe’s Elections: Mugabe’s Last Stand, suggesting that the aftermath of today's elections in Zimbabwe is likely to be a protracted and violent political crisis – regardless of who comes out ahead in the polls. 

Even before polling started, there have been reports of ruling-party aligned state security services resorting to violence and intimidation against opponents of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party.

The ICG notes the poor state of election preparations. None of the proposed reforms have been implemented that might have forestalled a repeat of the post-electoral crisis of 2008, in which violence and refugee flows led the Southern African Development and Cooperation Community (SADC) under South African leadership to intervene and impose a power sharing arrangement on Mr. Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change–Tsvangirai (MDC-T).

This time, Mugabe has blocked any western election observers. The African Union and SADC will have teams on the ground, but they are unlikely to be critical of Mugabe, who is the surviving patriarch of the southern African liberation movements.

Given these realities, it is surprising that at least some in the opposition expect to win, and by a substantial margin. The Zimbabwe Transition Barometer (ZTB), produced by a local NGO, argues that over the past four years, the country has become democratic in culture, and a democratic wave will sweep Mugabe out and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai into the presidency.

It is hard to share that optimism. But, if the opposition should appear to be winning, we should anticipate especially vicious repression by the ruling ZANU-PF, which will not tolerate an opposition victory; even perhaps in spite of Mugabe’s personal claims that he will accept defeat, a reality he clearly sees as remote.

The Zimbabwe election shambles is no credit to SADC and South African President Jacob Zuma. They have failed to bring about a democratic transformation in Zimbabwe. Further, Mr. Zuma has thrown over his envoy to Zimbabwe, Lindiwe Zulu, a sharp-minded and outspoken advocate for a free and fair election. Zuma acted at the request of Mugabe, who notoriously called her a “street woman.”

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