What is a ‘fair’ election?

The recent elections in Zimbabwe were a flagrant fraud.  But analysis must not stop short at ballot rigging. Zimbabwe’s problems are far greater. Why did many Zimbabweans vote for Mugabe?  

Sarah Bracking
11 October 2013

Voters go to the polls in Harare, July 2013. Demotix/zimphoto Zim. All rights reserved.

The flagrant fraud of the recent Zimbabwe election has received scarcely any analysis in the western media.  Yet the effrontery of the operation takes one’s breath away.  As the leading Zimbabwean political activist and analyst, Ibbo Mandaza, noted the day after the election,  ‘not even ZANU-PF can believe the result’. The Times had actually beaten him to it, publishing a cartoon of Mugabe congratulating Zimbabweans for returning him to power on the day before the ‘poll’.

Even so, everything about operation ‘we will not let ZANU-PF and the dictator lose’ had gone so well it was embarrassingly unbelievable. They hadn’t even had to unleash anarchy, murder and land occupation (as in 2000), steal the result by changing the numbers right at the end (as in 2002 and 2005), or demand a run off in order to torture people into not voting (as in 2008).

The voters’ roll, not publicly available, boasting a mass occupation by dead, missing or fictional people (estimated at over a million); 206,000 rural people receiving ‘assistance’ to vote (by police forcing them to vote ZANU-PF); a totally improbable 99.97 per cent of rural voters registered (against 68 per cent in urban areas);  the removal from the electoral roll and/or denial of voter registration to urban voters suspected of being MDC supporters (some 750,000); the turning away on the day of some 305,000 people, 64,000 in Harare alone; the mass printing of fraudulent ballot papers; the mass bussing of fraudulent residents into swing seats; and a second election before the real one to let uniformed personnel (now in civvies and taking bus trips) vote twice had, unsurprisingly, clinched it. It doesn’t take much elementary maths to note that if you take away the dead and assisted peoples’ ‘votes’, and restore over a million disenfranchised suspected MDC voters, the alleged Mugabe landslide totally disappears, by more than 500,000 in favour of the MDC. Poof! Think of a number, any number...

It was a multi-pronged, multi-dimensional, indeed very traditional set of tactics from the Best Practise Handbook of Stealing Elections (out of print East European/Soviet edition, with a preface by Nicolae Ceaușescu, and alleged afterword by Israeli security company Nikuv International Products) and the Joint Operations Command and the Central Intelligence Organisation must have been very proud. While even the African Union and SADC observers had difficulty saying ‘fair’ out loud, a number of near neighbours, with President Jacob Zuma rushing to head the line, quickly congratulated the Leader-Who-Cannot-Be-Allowed-To-Lose, thankful that some 14 million Zimbabweans could be returned to their sovereign prison without the need for any expenditure or effort in an election year in South Africa.  Anyway, surely any remaining detractors must be enemy counterrevolutionary elements of British imperialism who don’t like land reform.

On Metro Radio they reported that a British journalist had asked the Leader-Who-Cannot-Be Allowed-to-Lose in a press conference whether he thought it was time to retire at 89, to which he replied, ‘does anyone ask the British Queen that?’. The Metro lady thought this was funny and that ‘he had a point’ (indeed there are similarities between the not so democratically elected Mugabe, and the British Queen who, quite shockingly, both retains some powers of governance in Britain, and allegedly some land in Zimbabwe.)

On Facebook and on Twitter the ever joking Zimbabweans, or ‘twimbos’ (Zimbabweans who tweet) were asking ‘do you know anyone who voted ZANU-PF?’, another replied ‘only dead people’. Hah!  But, maybe, if you had voted ZANU-PF, you might not want to come out and admit it? I say this because the real discomfort to me about the election is how to explain why many people did indeed still vote ZANU-PF. While the observers withdrew the assigning of the ‘fair’ label, they retained the notion of it being ‘fair enough’ in the context not only of low geopolitical capital (no big superpower wanting to argue with the result), an unprincipled South African position, but also the fact that a couple of million Zimbabweans did indeed vote ZANU-PF.

The uncomfortable question is still there, of how could any rational person vote ZANU-PF apparently ‘freely’? I came up with two answers to this question, broadly resources and terror, a classical ‘stick and carrot’. First the carrot - an election campaign on ZANU-PF’s part alive with gifts and spoils from diamond revenue.  ZANU-PF, armed with cash, reverted somewhat from their normal means of stealing elections to a more wholesale campaign at the local level distributing spoils from mineral rents. This suggests two things: first, that they did indeed feel some pressure under the Global Political Agreement on the need for democratic deepening, a more accountable Zimbabwe Election Commission, and a passable polling day.  They cleverly delivered resources through patrimonial means, including stands, houses and land.

On the eve of the election they promised to cancel outstanding debt to municipalities, which reminded me of how Adolf Hitler consolidated power under the Third Reich, by cancelling housing debt for people with children. Then there was the pretence that Mugabe could put up with losing the election, which looked good globally.  

But this only works in the context of the stick. Observers on the ground found that people were struck by Ignorance, Fear and Poverty. The level of fear swayed people to vote against their wishes, even alone in the ballot box. They remind me of the type of society Zimbabwe currently is, where people are silenced by fear and traumatised by political violence and torture. In his recent book, When a State Turns on its Citizens, Lloyd Sachikonye wrote, ‘Zimbabwean politics are embedded in a tradition and practice of violence that began more than half a century ago. The consequence of this state of affairs is a society traumatized by fear, withdrawal and collective depression, based on past memories of violence, intimidation and harassment”.

After the 2005 stolen election ZANU-PF’s Joint Operations Command conducted Operation Murambatsvina to punish the ‘filth’ who voted MDC by bulldozing down their houses. At the time, I wrote about the particular threat/reward structure of being a Zimbabwean voter. It goes like this, a Big Man from the party comes to the village with sparkling new farm equipment, computers for the school, some food, party T-shirts, baseball caps, material for dresses and the inevitable food and beer. He, and sometimes Big Woman, speaks in the language of donation to a subject, not a citizen, in the context of development resources being within the largesse of the ruling party:

I/We (the Party) gave ‘the voters of area x goods y in recognition, and expectation, of their continued loyalty. In seats where the incumbent was MDC, in a variant of this exchange, the people were assured of forgiveness and future reward if they voted correctly this time, and reminded of the dearth of resources they had received with MDC representation. For example, ‘Comrade Kasukuwere said voting for ZANU-PF would bring development to Mufakose since the elected MP would be from the ruling party’ (The Herald, 28 March 2005). 

Not so much has changed since 2005. The reward/threat message has been reinvigorated by the campaign of terror in 2008, and in rural areas preceding this election. That this influences people’s sense of what they are ‘free’ to do is without question. Zimbabweans are collectively ruled, according to Fortunate Machingura in her inspiring work on health and thanatopower in Zimbabwe, by panopticism, Foucault’s idea of watching everyone with the view to experimentation and total authority.

I witnessed the consequences of this in 2007, when I passed a police station in Hatfield where torture was in progress. One could hear the wailing screams of a body being violated. I vomited. But many people were walking past on their way to work, looking neither this way, nor that. No-one intervened, no one spoke. Similarly, I watched once while police moved on and beat up the traders outside a mall. No-one intervened. Nobody spoke. Everyone tried to look the other way. I believe this response is pretty exceptional, and that in Nigeria, or Kenya, this conduct would have lead to some big ‘kaka kaka’ and the police would be made to run. The rule of terror in Zimbabwe seems absolute;  it is perfectly believable in the everyday lives of most Zimbabweans that if they err too much, they will die.

This is the basis of Achille Mbembe’s analysis of necropolitics, starting from Foucault’s insight that sovereign power is crucially about deciding who lives and who dies, about ‘the condition for the acceptability of putting to death’. Power, Mbembe wrote, ‘continuously refers and appeals to exception, emergency, and a fictionalised notion of the enemy. It also labours to produce that same exception, emergency, and fictionalized enemy’. ZANU does this well, by continuing the fear of the British enemy and the ‘outsider’ more generally. In 2005, I interviewed rural residents south of Gutu who believed that the British were responsible for cloud busting and stopping the rain in order to kill them; and that the British army were amassed over the border in Botswana because they wanted to invade Zimbabwe - both fictions made believable by the patriotic nationalism of ZANU-PF. Thus the prohibition against killing can be violated when customs define those who may be killed in defence of the party-state and the existence of the British ‘enemy’ justifies it.   

The ‘customs’ in Zimbabwe are of a population constantly, and rationally, fearful, as strategic and periodic terror allows for further terror and sometimes campaigns of death. That fear is both of torture by uniformed personnel and ZANU-PF militia internally, and of the fictionalized enemy over the border, who wants to reinvade, the one who funds the MDC, the counter-revolutionary stooges of the west. In this context, obedient citizens are created by constantly policing those who might ideologically err, into the categories of enemies and errants, in a politics which, as Mbembe put it, seeks to  ‘distinguish between the “error” of the citizen and the crime of the counter-revolutionary in the political sphere’. One can be rehabilitated, but the other must be eliminated, if not by death, at least by a level of fear that consigns the individual to silence. In this context, freedom is impossible, and elections in Zimbabwe give the people only the choice of whether to return from their ‘error’ (if they voted MDC last time) or be a counter-revolutionary (if they want to again).

Despite this terror, election observers had no difficulty saying that the election was ‘free’. What is the meaning of ‘free’ in the context of a military junta inhabiting a vacated democratic shell?  Though it may be true that some citizen/subjects ‘freely’ walked to the ballot boxes and crossed bits of paper, or were ‘assisted’ in doing so, this is in the context of an ever-present and believable threat of political violence and/or a ‘let die’ socio-economic abjection (potentially death by torture or by starvation respectively) as a consequence of the ‘misdemeanour’ of not supporting ZANU-PF. IOn this context, particularly in the rural areas where ‘chiefs’ oversee obedience, it is perfectly understandable or rational for an individual to vote ZANU-PF, even though this is not their intrinsic desire. They are not, in reality, ‘free’ in the way liberals understand it.

So, in stealing this election ZANU-PF fiddled an ostensibly liberal democratic system by reverting to their customary pattern of patrimonialism and spoils politics for reward, and the believable terror and death for threat. They are even able to depict democracy as a colonial invasion that affronts patriotism, to  garner support in the ideological domain. The MDC need to make better gains in the ideological battle, since in Zimbabwe democracy can be so successfully depicted as a project against the people rendered by colonisers.

‘Freedom’ has to mean more than mere compliance with observable norms in elections. Freedom must mean freedom from violence and coercion, as well as from poverty. ZANU-PF is a past master at compromising the citizen’s freedom, in fact at creating different varieties of citizenship and even denying it to whole groups by racial, ethnic or class whim. Yet the fact remains that all Zimbabweans are just that – Zimbabweans. And this is whether they vote ZANU-PF or not.

But as it stands, in the context of this threat and reward structure, it is rational to vote ZANU-PF if you want to live and prosper.  That is the MDC’s problem. In short, there is a bigger problem than election rigging in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. There is systemic political violence, not every day for everyone, but a permanent believable threat hanging over everyone. 

Sachikonye’s book is brilliant, but it is the only brilliant book that I could not read to the end.   The accounts of torture accounts were too gruesome for my privileged western soul. And I didn’t live them, I was just reading of them in a book. This is the haemorrhage of Zimbabwe. 


References and further reading 

Botting F and Wilson S (eds.) (1997) The Bataille Reader Oxford, Blackwell

Bracking, S (2005), “Development Denied: autocratic militarism in post-election Zimbabwe”, Review of African Political Economy, 32, 104/5, 341 – 357, available here. 

Mbembe, A (2003), “Necropolitics”, Public Culture, 15, 1, 11-40

Sachikonye, L (2011), When a State Turns on its Citizens, Jacana Press, Johannesburg

Zimbabwe Election Support Network (2013), Report on the 31st July Harmonised Elections, available from here.

A version of this text first appeared in The Africa Report on September 17, 2013 and is reproduced with permission.

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