Michael Abramowitz is president of Freedom House.
Under the flickering illumination of three small lightbulbs, election workers labored patiently into the night Monday in a high school classroom in Mutoko, Zimbabwe, hand-counting ballots cast in the country’s first elections since longtime president Robert Mugabe was toppled last November.
When the presiding election officer rejected certain ballots because they lacked a clear voter preference, he asked agents from the two major parties if there were any objections. And when the counting ended near midnight, the officer walked in near-total darkness to deliver the results to a counting center a few hundred yards away, returning a few minutes later to post the numbers on the schoolhouse wall.
Contrast this peaceful, promising tableau with what played out Wednesday in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, when police fought running battles with protesters frustrated by the authorities’ failure to quickly release presidential election returns. The scene was resonant of the old Zimbabwe, where Mugabe and his security forces brutally repressed opponents.
Zimbabwe is at a crossroads, yet another fault line in the intensifying contest between autocracy and democracy.
With dictators and illiberal populists surging in many places around the world, it is easy to forget that democracy has also had some recent wins — in countries such as Ecuador, where a strongman president left office last year, complying with term limits, and his successor is moving the country in a freer direction; and Armenia and Malaysia, where empowered citizens prevented autocrats from extending their time in power.
Such wins are no doubt fragile. But they put the lie to a once-discredited idea now gaining renewed energy, namely that democracy is a contrived Western invention not relevant to today’s complex problems. While their democracy remains imperfect, Zimbabweans this week expressed a powerful, universal urge to freely select their leaders. The estimated 75 percent voter turnout — a substantial improvement over the Mugabe regime’s last election, in 2013 — was evidence of a palpable desire for change.
Can Zimbabwe become the next victory for democracy? The opportunity for democratic renewal exists because of an undemocratic tool — a coup. Though not formally described as such by the United States and others, that is what occurred last fall when the military engineered the removal of Mugabe, the leader of Zimbabwe’s liberation in 1980 and until then the country’s only leader. His fierce attachment to power included thuggery, violence and the gross mismanagement of an economy that was once among Africa’s most vibrant.
Mugabe’s onetime protege Emmerson Mnangagwa, a key figure in his security apparatus and himself implicated in past political violence, took power and launched a carefully cultivated effort to signal change. He promised to hold free and fair elections, a prerequisite for increased engagement and economic support from many countries, the United States included.
Whether Zimbabwe is on a genuinely new course is far from certain. I was part of an election monitoring delegation organized by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, among the many outside groups that were permitted to observe the elections this week.
The delegation was cautious in its initial findings released Wednesday, mindful that a peaceful election day like Monday’s is not the same as a fair and free process. Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa ran a spirited campaign focused on the need for change, but it seemed clear to many Zimbabweans and invited observers that the ruling party put a heavy thumb on the scale, raising the question of whether the will of the people would be reflected in the final tally. The deadline for announcing the result is Saturday (as of this writing, a Thursday announcement had been promised), but frustration with the delay, and the Chamisa party’s accusations of government vote-rigging, spawned Wednesday’s protests by his supporters.
Civil-society groups and others have raised concerns particularly about the conduct of the campaign in rural areas, traditionally ruling-party strongholds, where there were reports of voters’ being reminded that after Mugabe appeared to have lost the 2008 election, he unleashed a wave of violence against opposition supporters and held onto power.
Given Zimbabwe’s sordid history of election violence and fraud, the bar will be high for many people to accept the results. “This week’s elections took place in the context of 18 years of repressed political rights, deepening economic pain, a history of rigged voting and the ghost of the 2008 election,” Catherine Samba-Panza, former interim president of the Central African Republic and one of the chairs of the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute delegation, said in Harare Wednesday.
Given this past, other governments and international donors should be cautious about increasing engagement with Zimbabwe and strongly urge restraint by the security forces in the coming days. Democratic change is possible. But hope should be tempered by a realistic understanding of the forces arrayed against it and the determination of autocrats to hold onto power.