free and fair

As the Carter Center heads to Zimbabwe, when should election observers stay at home? 

By Nic Cheeseman

Posted on July 25, 2023 14:21

Zimbabwe President and ZANU-PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa
Zimbabwe President and ZANU-PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa in Esigodini Matebeleland South. (Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

International election observers are on their way to Zimbabwe for the 2023 general election. Teams from the European Union, Carter Centre and the African Union will be joined by other groups. It is already clear, however, that the ZANU-PF government is intent on manipulating not only the elections, but also the observation process itself.  

Having consistently attacked Western observers over the last few years, President Emmerson Mnangagwa delayed the accreditation process for the EU and the Carter Center to prevent them from doing the kind of long-term observation considered best practice.

This is likely to make these missions more cautious about calling out the years of repression that have created a remarkably uneven political playing field. Worse still, the government has chosen who will be observing it.

The Carter Center, for example, was forced to leave its Chief of Party Larry Garber at home, presumably because he co-led a joint NDI/IRI observer delegation in Zimbabwe in 2018 that stated the polls did not meet international standards. 

Repressive regimes

Along with growing concern that election observation missions that pull their punches risk legitimising authoritarian political systems, recent events in Zimbabwe raise important questions.

What good can observers do if governments are determined to stay in power? If repressive regimes place constraints on observers, should they make a point of publicly refusing to deploy? Answering these questions requires us to look at the impact of observers in recent years, and consider the risk that their absence could make elections even worse. 

It is little wonder that a recent Afrobarometer survey found that 58% of people fear violence during the elections.

The logic behind the benefits of election observation is obvious: having an external group observe the process and identify problems makes it riskier for governments to rig elections, and so keeps them honest. Observation missions also make recommendations about a range of things from voter registration to ballot counting, which can help to improve the electoral process over time.  

There is one big problem, however. Election observers don’t have the authority to intervene to prevent fraud.

The code of conduct by which observers operate requires them to identify problems with the system, not to intervene in it. In other words, if observers see someone stuffing ballot boxes their role is to document the abuse, not to remove the fraudulent votes.

The ability of observers to improve the quality of elections is also limited by their lack of institutional power. Neither the electoral commission nor the government is under a formal obligation to comply with observers’ findings. International donors are also under no legal compulsion to respond to evidence of manipulation – even if it is generated by the very observation groups they help to finance. 

Play by the rules

This double-edged weakness means that election observation only works if one of two conditions holds. First, if the government is reasonably committed to democratic principles, or sufficiently worried about public and international opinion, the threat of being embarrassed can encourage them to play by the rules.

Second, if international partners and civil society groups throw their weight behind observers, hard hitting evaluations can pressure uncooperative governments to back down. These conditions held in the 1990s when election observation contributed to an era of progress.

Over the last decade, however, autocrats have been emboldened by 20 years of democratic recession, while the willingness of donors to make diplomatic interventions in defence of democracy has waned.  

Rampant corruption has seen taxpayers’ money diverted into a slush fund for the campaign of the ruling ZANU-PF party.

The current electoral farce in Sierra Leone is a perfect illustration of the difficult position these trends have left election observers in. After a heated campaign, the electoral commission announced that President Julius Bio secured 56% of the vote – just enough to meet the 55% threshold required for a first round win.

This outcome was contested by the National Election Watch (NEW), a domestic observation group. NEW’s rigorous parallel vote tabulation suggested that electoral fraud – including ballot box stuffing and switching “invalid” ballots to Boi’s total – were used to get the president over the line.

The strength of the evidence persuaded the Carter Center and the European Union to back NEW, expressing deep concerns. 

This was the kind of robust response that critics complained was sorely lacking in previous cases, such as the Kenyan elections of 2017. Despite observers taking a stronger stand in Sierra Leone, their impact has been negligible.

President Bio was rapidly sworn in for another term, the electoral commission refused to release more data, and many international partners sat on their hands. While representatives of the US made a number of powerful statements, other key donors have been largely silent.   

Value of observers

Although the case of Sierra Leone demonstrates the limits of what observers can achieve in the face of a recalcitrant government, it also highlights the value of them being on the ground. The ability of Western observers to amplify NEW’s findings means the election’s flaws are well known both domestically and internationally. This may encourage a more concerted effort to push the government back towards democratic rule.  

Does this mean election observers will play a positive role in Zimbabwe, despite the constraints? Sadly, the reality is more complicated. The kind of strong position observers adopted in Sierra Leone tends to happen when an election is blatantly rigged at the last minute.

When there is no clear evidence of election-day fraud, observers are more likely to pull their punches. This is because they are reluctant to state an election is not credible on the basis of background factors such as general repression and media censorship. When this happens, observers risk not simply being ineffective, but actively legitimising an undemocratic political system. 

 This is a serious possibility in Zimbabwe, because the extent of manipulation ahead of the election means that the government may not need to rig the ballot itself. Legislation such as the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Bill and the Patriotic Bill are designed to neuter what is left of the country’s critical voices. Opponents of the regime have been arrested on the flimsiest of charges and denied bail in a clear breach of the rule of law.

Female leaders from the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) have been abducted, tortured and then arrested on the false allegation that they made up their own abuse. It is little wonder that a recent Afrobarometer survey found that 58% of people fear violence during the elections – up from 43% in 2018.  

This flood of authoritarian strategies has continued into the election period, washing away any hope the process will be free or fair.

The cost of vying for election was massively increased to price opposition parties out of the contest, with some unable to field candidates for the legislature. Rampant corruption has seen taxpayers’ money diverted into a slush fund for the campaign of the ruling ZANU-PF party. At the same time, citizens are bussed in to rallies in support of President Mnangagwa, while 100 CCC rallies have been banned by the police 

Observers therefore need to be willing to clearly state that the electoral environment is unacceptable if they are to avoid creating a fig-leaf of respectability for ZANU-PF to hide behind. It is particularly concerning that the observation process itself has been manipulated. Let us hope that, as in Sierra Leone, the observers operating in Zimbabwe find their voice, building on the precedent on 2018 when some groups issued pre-electoral statements highlighting key problems before the polls.

It is when observers allow strategically smart governments to set the terms of their engagement and soften their criticisms that they would better serve democracy by staying at home. 

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.