Electoral violence was experienced in the first election in Zimbabwe in 1980 with an assassination attempt on candidate Robert Mugabe. The parliamentary election of 1995 was described as a “non-election” because in 40 per cent of the constituencies Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) was the only party contesting. Similarly, in the presidential election of 1996, Robert Mugabe was the only candidate.
The 2000 Referendum and General Election
Electoral violence as it is currently manifested had its defining moment in the post-election phase of the constitutional referendum of 2000. The government suffered a loss and began its campaign of violence in the run-up to the 2000 parliamentary election. In the pre-election period, opposition voting patterns were identified and a number of white farmers regarded as Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) ringleaders were murdered. Systematic voter intimidation began to intensify in April with security forces and ZANU-PF activists targeting opposition supporters. There were myths promulgated as part of the intimidation campaign. For example, voters were told that their mobile telephones could reveal how they voted. Land redistribution became an electoral issue.
The 2002 General Election
In the 2002 pre-election period, human rights groups reported that more than 30 people were killed in electoral violence, mostly MDC supporters. Amnesty International reported 1,400 detentions, mostly opposition polling agents and monitors, taking the form of arrests in the pre-election period and on Election Day. The Commonwealth observer group blamed the violence on “paramilitary youth groups” associated with the ruling party. The 2002 presidential election was held over two days. The police guarded the ballot boxes overnight and when the boxes were opened at the end of the second day, video-taped evidence revealed many ballots neatly marked and stacked in the boxes, indicating ballot box stuffing had occurred.
The 2005 General Election
In 2005, the number of constituencies increased from 120 to 210 and around 9,000 polling stations were opened. In 2000, votes were counted at constituency-level counting centers. This procedure was changed to counting at polls which generally provides greater transparency in the count. However, this procedural change also served as a tool for voter intimidation. In each polling station, voters’ ballots were grouped, tabulated and reported in alphabetical segments from A – L, M’s, and N – Z. In the 2000 elections, if post-election retribution occurred because of the way a constituency voted, then the perpetrators had an unwieldy pool of 45,000 voters to intimidate. However, by knowing the poll outcomes by alphabetical division, the size of the targeted pool shrank to 100 to 200 voters. Thus, the “intimidation pool” is much smaller and controllable.
On Election Day, fraud and malpractice, rather than violence, were in abundance in order to help a ZANU-PF victory. Observers cited such deficiencies as the exclusion of international media, discrepancies in vote totals, misuse of food aid for vote buying or intimation, ghost voters and a partisan ZANU-PF electoral commission. In the aftermath of the election, 700,000 people were displaced through the mass destruction of homes and business in sections of Harare conducted by the government to break-up the urban support base for MDC.
The 2008 Harmonized Elections
In 2008, the election sequencing was “harmonized” as local, parliamentary and presidential first round elections were held on the same day. The pre-election period and Election Day were relatively peaceful. However, the apparent loss of ZANU-PF in the first round in March triggered a fierce retaliation against MDC supporters and in those party strongholds which did not deliver votes as expected for ZANU-PF. The violence against MDC activists and supporters was reported to be directed and resourced by the state security structures and executed by the youth militia and war veterans. There were over 2,000 violations documented by domestic groups. The tactics included murders, beatings, arrests, confiscations of personal property and livestock, and arson of homes and businesses.
The 2013 Presidential Election
The 2013 election can be characterized by the intimidation tactics employed by the police on the eve of the election and in the post-election period. Heavily armed riot police were deployed to what were termed “flashpoints” in Zimbabwe, ostensibly to prevent violence but also creating an atmosphere of intimidation just prior to voting. Although these threats and intimation tactics were reported, no-pre-election violence was experienced. Western election observers were barred from monitoring the election, leaving it to 500 regional and 7,000 domestic observers to pursue. The voter registration rolls were the target of accusations by the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T) to favour ZANU-PF in the election. In the post-election phase, opposition groups reported instances of intimidation by ZANU-PF supporters. A heavy police presence was deployed during this period in Harare and around the MDC-T headquarters. There were reports of opposition figures homes being ransacked by ZANU-PF supporters and the residents of these homes being physically assaulted by the perpetrators. There were also reports of post-election violence in the countryside.
Electoral Violence Scenario – 2017-2018
Intra-party ZANU-PF clashes have been reported between party activists in Bulawayo and Harare, leaving several of them injured. The reason for the clashes was party power struggles within these jurisdictions. One claim was that the clashes were between the Generation 40 faction, the “young Turks” within ZANU-PF, which has the support of the President’s wife Grace; and the Lacoste faction, aligned with Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, as a kind of precursor to the post-Mugabe transition. While this violence was not directed at them, opposition supporters point to the conflictive environment already being created and the volatility of this environment to swing against opposition activists. The consistency of the employment of violence by ZANU-PF and the actors engaged – police, youth militias, war veterans – suggests similar patterns of violence to be anticipated in 2018.
However, in an ominous new development, the MDC-T has expressed its concern about the Zimbabwe National Army’s (ZNA) current recruitment campaign for “thousands” of new soldiers, termed a “war arsenal”, at a time of financial challenges for the government to cover its current obligations. Additionally, The United States Holocaust Museum has warned that Zimbabwe is entering a period of “acute” risk for mass atrocities, which could even worsen upon President Mugabe’s death and the ensuing power struggle. As the Museum’s Early Warning Country Report states, “Today there is a potential risk of new mass atrocities in Zimbabwe as Robert Mugabe, the country’s president, nears death and planned elections in 2018 approach”.