The polls in Zimbabwe had barely closed when Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai characterized the July 31 presidential election as “a huge farce.” “In our view, the election is null and void,” Tsvangirai said. “The shoddy manner in which it has been conducted and the consequent illegitimacy of the result will plunge this country into a serious crisis.”
Tsvangirai, who sought to defeat longtime President Robert Mugabe, dismissed the election outright nearly four days before the announcement of the official results. Speaking to reporters from the headquarters of his party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Tsvangirai described polling day irregularities, vote rigging and disenfranchisement. On Friday, Zimbabwean election officials claimed Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) had won a massive majority in parliament. The news, ahead of an official verdict that was expected Monday, only adds fuel to allegations by the country’s leading domestic monitoring body that the vote which could have brought to an end more than three-decades of Mugabe rule was clearly compromised.
The latest elections were Tsvangirai’s third try to unseat 89-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled the country since its independence in 1980. Five years ago, Tsvangirai won the first round of voting, only to have ZANU-PF contest the results. More than 20 people were killed and 10,000 injured in the ensuing political violence, leading Mugabe and Tsvangirai to enter a power-sharing agreement.
The 2008 election took place amid crippling inflation, which led Zimbabwe’s finance minister to abandon the country’s currency in the spring of 2009. In the years since, the discovery of billions of dollars of diamonds, along with other mineral treasures, have led to modest economic growth; however, the country’s political systems remained stagnant. Mugabe and ZANU-PF retained control over the military, police and judicial system, and diamond revenues only enhanced their strength.
Elections, arguably a check on Mugabe’s power, will likely have little effect. Before the elections, Tsvangirai was already arguing that polls were being manipulated and that ZANU-PF sought to intimidate voters. The International Crisis Group, a Brussels based think tank, said two days before the polling that “conditions for a free and fair vote do not exist.”
The day after the election, the head of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) said it found widespread problems. He noted that 99.7 percent of rural voters–where Mugabe has strong support–were registered to vote, while less than 70 percent of urban voters, who break heavily for Tsvangirai, were not. “It is not sufficient for elections to be peaceful for elections to be credible,” ZESN chairman Solomon Zwana told reporters. “They must offer all citizens an equal opportunity to vote.”
The confidence of Mugabe’s camp was sky-high throughout. A senior official in ZANU-PF told Reuters on Thursday, “We’ve taken this election. We’ve buried the MDC.” Mugabe’s party released what it later called an unauthorized message on its Twitter feed claiming victory, only to later take it down. Despite saying they would wait for the results from the election commission, ZANU-PF later tweeted, “Well we know some people are bitter loosers [sic], we beat them and have always beaten them one way or another.”
On Friday, Olusegun Obasanjo, head of the African Union mission that observed the election, said that monitors recorded irregularities in the voting but that it did not amount to systematic tampering. The former Nigerian president, who had 70 observers, noted concerns over the high number of voters turned away and remarked, “I have never seen an election that is perfect.” But he cautioned that unless evidence to the contrary were to emerge “the election is free.” In the run-up to the election, the opposition voiced their own concerns of the AU’s impartiality in the process.
For Tsvangirai, the election was a chance to rule the country, but also an opportunity to remove Mugabe from power. In an interview with TIME in November 2011, he called the era of African strongmen like Mugabe and Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi “a phase.” “Mistaken policies, mistaken positions,” Tsvangirai said, “but it’s a phase all the same. What these nationalists and liberators created was one-man rule…We can’t have that in Africa if it’s going to be accepted as part of the democratic and prosperous future.”
The current situation is not what Tsvangirai nor countless Zimbabweans may have envisioned, with the threat of another period of violent turmoil looming. Five years ago, the country emerged from unrest with a new constitution, which limits the president to two terms. If Mugabe does win this round, under that constitution it would be his last victory, perhaps giving Tsvangirai another chance at the presidency. The Mugabe phase, though, is far from over.