As Zimbabwe goes to the polls this week, its electorate and southern African neighbours will be concerned less about who wins than by what follows. The country, which is still recovering from the disastrous hyperinflation it lived with for nearly a decade, can hardly afford the sort of political violence it saw after the 2008 elections. As for the poll outcome, expect no surprises. President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) will likely beat its main rival, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. ZANU-PF’s aggressive campaign has relied both on populist measures and the intimidation of the opposition and its supporters. Local and regional election monitors have already highlighted gross irregularities in the list of registered voters and the printing of ballot papers. Early polls for security personnel and bureaucrats were so haphazardly conducted that the Zimbabwe Election Commission had to tender an apology. In power for 33 straight years, Mr. Mugabe’s party has essentially wrested control of most institutions in Zimbabwe, including the armed forces, the police, the media and the election commission; the opposition knows there will be no independent national oversight of the polls.
Even if Mr. Tsvangirai were to attract enough votes to allow a power-sharing agreement to be brokered by friendly neighbours once again, it is improbable he could strike an equitable bargain. The MDC not only received flak for coalescing into the Mugabe-led government in 2008, but is widely perceived to have lost the plot since. Its leaders have been mired in a host of personal and political scandals. The Movement is plagued by factionalism, which led to a split between Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambura (Deputy PM) affiliates in the first place. What’s more, Mr. Tsvangirai is no longer the darling of the West — in fact, this tide has turned distinctly in favour of Mr. Mugabe. The European Union has promised to lift sanctions on Zimbabwe if the upcoming elections are certified as ‘free and fair.’ There is no doubt the President enjoys considerable support, owed largely to the remarkable land reforms he has pursued during his tenure. But he must not seek to retain power through threats and coercion. Zimbabwe’s fractured political landscape has to unite to shore up its fragile economy. Mr. Mugabe is 89, and is probably contesting his last elections. He has a final opportunity to confound his critics by winning fairly and ensuring the integrity of institutions whose role in guaranteeing the country a stable future is absolutely vital.