Sun, Aug 05, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Democracy loses another round after Zimbabwean elections

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg

The questionable Zimbabwe election is fresh proof that in the modern world, elections have less and less to do with democracy. The incumbent Zimbabwean leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was declared president on Friday and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), gained a constitutional majority in parliament.

The manipulated outcome was a global norm rather than an exception.

Zimbabwe was an important test case for democratization through elections given its post-colonial history.

Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country for more than 37 years, had transformed himself from a revered national liberation leader into a dictator determined to hold on to power until he died. He was 93 when Mnangagwa, his on-and-off favorite for succession, deposed him in a military coup last year.

Despite Mnangagwa’s history of violence and intrigue — he had served as Mugabe’s chief enforcer, forming the ties within the military that later helped him take power — some Western analysts were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

They hoped that he would turn out to be a more pragmatic and less ideological leader than Mugabe, serious about rebuilding an economy trashed by ignorant monetary experiments, expropriations and massive corruption.

Besides, Mnangagwa promised to hold a credible election, and it even looked close, as Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year-old lawyer and preacher at the head of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, mounted a strong challenge in Zimbabwe’s cities.

Yet any expectation of democratization should have died long before Mnangagwa was declared victorious.

Despite fashionable gimmicks such as biometric voter registration, this was a typical authoritarian election campaign with international observers noting voter coercion, the use of government resources to buy votes, ruling-party control of the media and a lack of transparency on the part of the election commission.

As the votes were counted, some polling stations made the results public and others did not.

Chamisa, who prematurely declared victory before any official counting was done, maintains that the election was stolen from him.

Mnangagwa unleashed the army on Chamisa’s supporters to put to rest any illusion that the outcome could be contested. Several people were killed.

Mnangagwa ended up with 50.8 percent of the official tally, while Chamisa was credited with 44.3 percent, but, as in all such elections, the numbers do not really matter. In this case, they are supposed to show that the election was closely fought and fairly won, so international financial institutions might have fewer doubts about Mnangagwa’s legitimacy.

It might or might not work depending on the economic policy signals Mnangagwa sends out. Not being as reckless as Mugabe is probably the threshold of sufficiency for some investment and financial aid; democratization would be too much to ask.

The Zimbabwe election pattern is typical of what is known in academic literature as “competitive authoritarianism.”

Russia and Turkey recently held similar elections, only without deadly violence in the final phase.

In its World Development Report for last year, the World Bank published a telltale chart showing an explosive growth in the number of electoral democracies since the 1980s — but a similarly steep decline in the number of free and fair elections.

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