Stark differences between western and African responses to Robert Mugabe’s seventh straight win in Zimbabwean’s presidential elections have revealed the pitfalls of the Opposition’s strategy that relied on international pressure to ensure a fair contest, and lay bare the frictions between an assertive continent and its former colonial overlords.

On Saturday, Mr. Mugabe and the ZANU (PF) won a landslide victory amidst opposition allegations of fraud at every step from voter registration and preparation of electoral rolls, to printing of ballot papers and the voting itself.

Observer missions from the African Union and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) stated that the irregularities of Zimbabwe’s elections did not jeopardise the results. Western observers were not invited to witness the polls.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma congratulated President Mugabe for his win and urged Morgan Tsvangirai, Mr. Mugabe’s rival, to accept the result as “election observers reported it to be an expression of the will of the people.”

In contrast, William Hague, Foreign Secretary of the U.K., expressed “grave concerns” over the credibility of the elections, US Secretary of State John Kerry said “the United States does not believe that the results announced today represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people,” and Australia’s Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, called for a “re-run of the elections.”

Now, Mr. Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) are running out of options.

“Most African leaders have been fooled by the absence of bloodshed, for them where there is no bloodshed, it means things are fair,” said MDC spokesperson Douglas Mwonzora, “It is a fundamental misconception.”

Mr. Mwonzora and the MDC approached precisely those African leaders in June when Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court decreed that the election be held in six weeks on July 31. The MDC protested and asked SADC to put pressure on Mr. Mugabe to delay the election to allow for a fair contest.

“SADC simply said go back to Zimbabwe, we recommend a two week extension,” said Mr. Mwonzora, “We couldn’t say to SADC we are not taking your advice.”

Mr. Mugabe bowed to SADC’s wishes and approached the court, which declined to extend the date. “The courts have said the elections must take place. And so do we listen to the courts? Or do we not listen to the courts?” said the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Ms. Dlamini-Zuma, at a press conference in Geneva, “I thought a lot of you have always been talking to us about the rule of law and respect for the judiciary.”

ZANU (PF) leaders maintain that they won the elections fairly and feel vindicated by the SADC and AU reports.

“We had to work hard after were humiliated in 2008,” said Saviour Kasukuwere, a ZANU (PF) Minister, referring to the previous election in which Mr. Tsvangirai polled more votes that Mr. Mugabe but pulled out of a run-off when his supporters 200 people were killed by security forces. SADC intervened to form a fractious unity government with Mr. Mugabe as President and Mr. Tsvangirai as Prime Minister.

“They [MDC] think elections are a Christmas party where people come bearing gifts,” Mr. Kasukewere said. After the 2008 debacle, his party went into campaign mode right away and recruited voters, amplified their manifesto and revived their grass-roots organization. The MDC, he claims, took their eye off the ball.

“Yes, ZANU (PF) was in campaign mode from 2008, but we had no answer because they closed off the media to the MDC. The Prime Minster Tsvangirai appeared on national television four times in four years,” Mr. Mwonzora responded, “The MDC concentrated on running the country.” Media reforms were one of the now-abandoned preconditions for the MDC’s participation in last week’s polls; the other was security sector reform.

The ZANU (PF) evolved as a disciplined, cadre-based, guerilla party locked in a liberation struggle with a heavily armed white colonial state, while the MDC came together as a coalition of largely urban trade unionists and civil society groups. This, perhaps, proved to be the greatest difference between both parties.

After 33 years in power, ZANU (PF) appears to have completed its project of state capture by placing loyalists in the security services, courts, and all levels of the bureaucracy at all levels. The snap-election in July took the MDC by surprise, but the ZANU (PF) simply switched on their entrenched party apparatus.

For example, Mr. Mwonzora said that he often gave his constituents bus-fare to register themselves as voters, but officials didn’t add them to the electoral rolls. ZANU (PF) cadres, he admits, bussed people to the voter registration centres and stood there to ensure the registration was complete.

Over the next five years, the ZANU (PF) is expected to further expand its network, while the AU and the international community shall turn their attention to the next big crisis.

“African leaders are sick and tired of the Zimbabwe issue,” Mr. Mwonzora said, “To them it is disposal of a problem that has occupied them for so long.”

More In: World | International | News