August 6, 2013

WHAT IS a free and fair election? Some observers of the balloting completed last week in Zimbabwe came away saying it wasn’t nearly as violent and tumultuous as the 2008 vote, which forced President Robert Mugabe into an uneasy power-sharing arrangement with a rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. The former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, head of an African Union mission, said the latest balloting was free and fair “from the campaigning point of view,” although there were “incidents that could have been avoided.” The Southern African Development Community, which had 562 observers, called the elections “free and peaceful,” but noted that it is too early to call them fair.

The elections certainly were not fair. Official results released Saturday gave Mr. Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe since 1980, 61 percent of the vote, and Mr. Tsvangirai 33 percent, with 6 percent going to other parties. Mr. Tsvangirai called the vote “fraudulent and stolen” and demanded a new election be held. There is good reason for his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, to cry foul. Observers reported that far too many voters were given election day “assistance,” which may have swayed their choices. There was a mysterious surplus of ballots and allegations of votes being cast on behalf of deceased voters and active voters being omitted wholesale from the rolls.

It seems that Mr. Mugabe learned lessons from the last election and set out this time to win in a way that would not bring international criticism. Above all, the voting was kept relatively calm. The fix was put in behind closed doors.

We fear Mr. Mugabe is not alone in practicing this method. Autocrats around the world seem to be passing around a playbook that shows how to rig elections quietly. It is not hard to guess what’s in this playbook. First, take control of the state media and exclude your opponents well before the voting. Then, seize control of the election machinery itself and make sure that your rigged triumph is plausible (in other words, not 99 percent). Third, avoid any signs of voter intimidation that can be recorded by a camera. Last, declare that the people have spoken, and do not look back.

Even in these restrictive conditions, civil society groups sometimes gain a foothold, with results that show weakening support for the powers that be. Certainly, Mr. Mugabe has not eliminated the opposition. The recent vote in Cambodia, too, exposed a growing and powerful civil society despite Hun Sen’s victory. President Vladimir Putin of Russia won his reelection in 2012 but has been unable to stamp out simmering discontent. Often, the losers in these contests reveal more about the true state of affairs than the winners.

Everyone who cares about democracy ought to be on the lookout for subtle methods of stealing an election. Both the United States and the United Kingdom properly criticized Mr. Mugabe for tilting the playing field. The ultimate goal of democracy is to build a vibrant civil society that connects the rulers and the ruled. It starts with respect at the ballot box.