As Zimbabwe heads to the polls on Wednesday, many in the international community hope that these elections will be free and fair and will finally bring to an end to Robert Mugabe and the ruling Zanu-PF party’s 33-year rule. If they do, it could be a turning point for the country, but there are many reasons to strongly doubt that these hopes will materialize.
Both major opposition parties have accused government of making a concerted effort to steal the election and there appears to be credible evidence backing these claims. The International Crisis Group states unequivocally that “conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist.”
To add to this, the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai, has faced a series of scandals, such as Tsvangirai's alleged sexual indiscretions and the loss of the party's major selling point (fixing hyperinflation) in previous elections.
Additionally, the key factor which helped secure Zanu-PF victories in 2002 and 2008 – control of the security forces – remains unchanged.
However, even if Tsvangirai is able to successfully overcome the odds, the change in Zimbabwe’s fortunes may fall well short of the expectations of the international community.
While Zimbabwe’s political landscape is in desperate need of a breath of fresh air, it is not immediately clear that Tsvangirai and the MDC will be the best stewards of this change. The greatest hope of MDC supporters both within Zimbabwe and in the international community is that an MDC victory will mark an end to the authoritarianism and brutal rule of the Mugabe regime. However, as Think Africa Press analyst Simukhai Tinu details here, “Tsvangirai and his party have been gravitating towards undemocratic practices – this includes hostility towards criticism, the issue of Tsvangirai’s succession, and the MDC’s own political violence.” There is distinct possibility that the MDC, once it attains power, will adopt some of the undemocratic practices of the previous regime, especially against political opponents. Further, a series of scandals emerging from the MDC’s time in government has revealed that the corruption that has long plagued Zimbabwe is not exclusive to Zanu-PF. Once in power, governance will clearly be a challenge for the MDC. An MDC government will be faced with a state media operation and security services which are strongly opposed to it. Membership in the Government of National Unity since 2008 has helped alleviate some fears about inexperience.
However, there is still a steep learning curve. As the BBC notes, “The country's third city, Gweru, has been run by an MDC-dominated council for the past 13 years … it has been a sorry episode.”
The other great hope for MDC supporters is that an MDC government will help bring to end Zimbabwe’s numerous economic woes. Finance Minister Tendai Biti has certainly enjoyed some successes in difficult circumstances. Given the amount of support it receives from the West, there is reason to believe that an MDC government will be more successful at attracting foreign direct investment into Zimbabwe, which many believe will be key to economic recovery.
But this will be no easy task. The market is not sentimental. No matter how loved Tsvangirai may be in the West, investors will react purely based on market conditions. As the International Crisis Group report notes, an MDC victory will not be taken lightly by hardliners in the ruling party. This is likely to lead to a period of instability that will drive away investors faster than the MDC can attract them. This is a process that has already begun, before the polls have even taken place.
That said, an MDC victory, no matter how unlikely, would be important for Zimbabwe. While the change and recovery that many expect would be neither drastic nor swift, it would nonetheless be a major step on the path towards true democratic reforms in Zimbabwe.