Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is the professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.
The Zimbabwean election campaign is in full swing. But despite the efforts of the government to improve its reputation, the politics of fear continues to undermine the prospects for a free and fair election. You wouldn’t know this sitting in Harare, the capital, where it has become impossible to move around without seeing a giant billboard with a picture of the country’s new leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Having replaced Robert Mugabe after he was forced from power by the military in November, Mnangagwa is desperate to present himself as a “change” candidate. As a result, he finds himself in the strange position of running against the legacy of his own party.
But many Zimbabweans don’t believe the hype. “I don’t know,” one opposition supporter told me. “People are saying that this time it will be different, but a leopard doesn’t change its spots — so what can we expect from a crocodile?” The mention of a “crocodile” is a reference both to Mnangagwa’s nickname and to the concern of many Zimbabweans that someone who was previously one of the most brutal members of the Mugabe government cannot be trusted to respect human rights.
There are some positive signs. Having promised elections observed by international monitors — something that was not allowed under Mugabe — the president has delivered. The presidential and legislative polls on July 30 will be watched by observers from the European Union and the United States. Police have a less visible presence on the streets. The High Court recently ordered chiefs to stop campaigning for the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and the opposition has been able to hold rallies in rural areas.
Yet despite this, a shocking number of Zimbabweans still feel afraid. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Afrobarometer in May, 31 percent worry that their ballot is not secret, 41 percent believe that the security forces will not be willing to accept the results, and 40 percent fear that there will be violence after the polls. These figures suggest that many voters believe the regime will be able to tell who voted for the opposition, and to punish them. Things may have changed somewhat after the recent pledge of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) not to intervene in the process, but these fears run deep. A free and fair election simply cannot be held in such a context.
While it is historically rooted, the prevalence of fear among the electorate is no accident. For all of the progress under Mnangagwa, ZANU-PF’s remarkably effective system of political control continues to operate. It is just harder to see, because high-profile physical violence has been replaced with quiet intimidation. Zimbabweans call this “subtle violence” — a form of repression that may not be directly promulgated by the president. It’s not clear whether this process is organic or part of a broader plan — but it is extremely effective, nonetheless.
Subtle violence has two main components. First, the ruling party has collected a vast array of data on citizens, forcing people to give up their private details to access food aid. It has also spread rumors that new technology — such as the country’s first biometric voter registration — makes it possible for them to track people and tell which party they support.
Second, traditional leaders, ZANU-PF candidates and their supporters quietly remind their communities that the last time there was a strong vote for the opposition in 2008, the government responded by unleashing a tidal wave of violence. This is known locally as “shaking the matchbox.” Once you have burned down someone’s house, you don’t need to do it again; showing them a matchbox is enough.
Recent data collected by the Heal Zimbabwe Trust and We The People are troubling. Scores of human rights violations are happening every week, and the vast majority are committed by ruling party or state officials.
The widespread use of subtle violence places election observers in a bind. It is still possible that ZANU-PF will panic and commit high-profile abuses. But it seems more likely that, having invited international observers in the hope they will legitimize the new political dispensation, the ruling party will deliver a process that looks superficially acceptable. Citizens will line up patiently to cast their ballots. The military will adopt a low profile. The official vote count will be plausible. And yet deep down, observers will know that the elections are deeply problematic.
If the international community is to effectively respond, it is essential that election observers don’t wait until after the elections to raise concerns. That would be far too little, far too late. Instead, monitors and the country’s international partners need to act now to highlight these problems and give Mnangagwa the opportunity to prove his democratic credentials by doing much more to resolve them. The U.S. monitoring mission has already recognized this, outlining a set of far-reaching concerns that must be addressed for the election to be credible. Others need to do the same — and fast — if elections in the new Zimbabwe are to offer citizens a genuine choice of which party they want to govern their country.