Zimbabweans head to the polls on Aug. 23 for the second time since Robert Mugabe’s nearly four decades in power ended in 2017. As many countries do, Zimbabwe has invited international observers to monitor the elections. But delays in inviting and then accrediting such missions and limits imposed on their activities suggest the government is doing so somewhat reluctantly. The tensions pose significant challenges for those observing the upcoming elections and, more generally, for anyone concerned about the role of observers in assessing the quality of electoral processes around the world.

Given ongoing negotiations with the international community to clear the country’s debt arrears, Zimbabwe’s government needs the imprimatur that international observers could provide but is sensitive to any potential criticism of its conduct. Still, even in the short time left before the vote, there are steps the government can take to enhance the quality of the elections.

Zimbabwe’s history suggests that the government’s actions are not the result merely of entrenched bureaucratic processes but reflect a determined effort to limit the scope of the observation effort. President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government may have an interest in obscuring conditions that hinder a free and fair vote. The human rights situation in Zimbabwe is demonstrably worse than five years ago – Amnesty International recently described it as “a brutal crackdown on human rights, especially the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”

Among the abuses: the Zimbabwean government successfully engineered the break-up of the main opposition party that contested the 2018 elections by awarding the party assets to a minority faction; few proposed electoral reforms have been enacted; opposition activists have been arrested and detained for significant periods; popular distrust has increased regarding the independence of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and the judiciary; opposition candidates are being removed from the ballot on questionable legal grounds, although court rulings have reversed the most egregious cases; and the government continues to provide economic and social benefits to supporters of the ruling party that are denied to the opposition.

My involvement with Zimbabwe’s elections, while sporadic, has spanned almost 40 years. It began in 1985, when I joined three colleagues as part of a modest international effort on behalf of a small human rights organization based in the United States. The Mugabe government’s response to our request to observe was telling: it allowed us the freedom to travel around the country and to speak with whomever we chose, but it declined to accredit our small team, which would have provided access inside polling stations.

Some Improvements in 2018

The situation improved considerably in 2018, when I co-directed an international observer delegation organized by the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (IRI and NDI, respectively). The newly installed government of Mnangagwa, who had been Mugabe’s vice president and took office after a 2017 coup, was seeking to project a new era of engagement with Western democracies. He welcomed international observers and facilitated their operations.

I arrived in Zimbabwe in mid-April 2018, well before the election was scheduled, and remained for a month beyond the July 30 election day. Our delegation was accredited to observe all aspects of the election process and to deploy long-term observers in all 10 provinces for more than a month prior to the elections. And a high-level pre-election assessment mission engaged with key government officials and articulated, two months before election day, a set of recommendations to enhance the quality of the elections.

The run-up to the vote was less violent than previous elections and election day administrative processes worked well. The IRI/NDI delegation noted “several improvements to the electoral process compared to Zimbabwe’s past elections.” Nonetheless, the delegation concluded that, “equally important problems give rise to deep concerns that the process thus far has not made the mark.” The government was not happy with this critical bottom line, which hindered their campaign to lift sanctions that had been imposed by the United States and the European Union since the early 2000s.

The run-up to the 2023 elections has presented many of the challenges encountered in elections prior to 2018 and some of the same from that year as well. The president announced the Aug. 23 election date on May 31, within the legally prescribed time period, and the electoral commission established regulations five days later for submitting applications for both domestic and international observer accreditation. But the accreditation process took time, so the first international observers sponsored by the European Union, for example, did not begin arriving until the end of June, less than two months before the election. In addition, observers were not authorized to monitor the setting of district boundaries following the new census and voter registration processes, which took place prior to the proclamation of the election date.

Enhancing Election Credibility

Under these circumstances, one can legitimately ask what purpose international observers will serve.  However, even in the limited period left before election day, observers can suggest steps that can be taken to enhance the credibility of the vote. A few examples:

  • Political parties should be authorized to organize rallies with minimal hassle and with adequate protection from the security forces, unlike a pattern reported recently of police banning opposition rallies, citing shortage of resources;
  • The design and printing of the ballots should be conducted in a transparent manner;
  • The multi-party liaison committees authorized by law to ensure that problems are addressed in real time should be convened on a regular basis in each of the provinces and with the ability to ensure that corrective actions are taken.

Zimbabwean activists overwhelmingly welcome the presence of international observers. They expect the international observers to deter or identify the most blatant election-day rigging, and to offer an objective assessment of the overall electoral process. They expect that international observers will do more than merely comment on election day events but will emphasize that honest, credible, and transparent elections are defined also by the political and security environment before and after election day.

In this regard, the European Union and Carter Center, with their rigorous standards and considerable experience with election observation in settings like Zimbabwe, will be particularly important. Moreover, data collected by Zimbabwe’s wealth of civil society organizations during the past 10 months will contribute to the ability of international observers to provide a comprehensive analysis of the entire election process and to comment more broadly than on the election-day events alone.

To avoid Zimbabwe’s approach serving as precedent for future elections in other countries, international organizations should carefully consider appropriate responses.  Indeed, once the elections are complete, international organizations such as the Carter Center, IRI, NDI, and the European Union, should review existing policies and practices for observing elections in situations where the host government limits the time for on-the-ground observation to take place and imposes other constraints.  While such actions may be within the sovereign rights of government, they suggest an antagonism toward the observation process that adversely impacts the multiple goals of international observation.

The challenges facing Zimbabwe will not end on Aug. 23, as the negotiations over the country’s debt arrears attest. Whatever the outcome of this election cycle, officials in Washington and Brussels will have to be cognizant of both the economic and social needs of the population and the imperative of supporting the evolution of democratic institutions. Experience in Zimbabwe alone demonstrates just how difficult the task will be.

IMAGE: A woman casts a ballot at a polling station on March 26, 2022 in Mbizo township, Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, during parliamentary and local authority by-elections that were seen as a yardstick of what is to come in the 2023 general polls. (Photo by ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP via Getty Images)