By Pearl Matibe
Several international election observer missions and diplomatic missions in Harare have published statements after Zimbabweans cast their votes in the elections held on Wednesday, 23 August in Zimbabwe. Among them were the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the British Embassy Harare, and the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe, as did the highest-ranking Republican Senator in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
On Friday, 25 August, the SADC Election Observation Mission to Zimbabwe`s Harmonised Elections published a joint preliminary statement from Harare, on the elections. Dr. Nevers Mumba, former Vice President of Zambia is the Head of the SADC Electoral Observation Mission (SEOM).
The statement said the political and security environment was “After consulting widely with stakeholders, the consensus was that the country was generally calm and peaceful.” It concluded however that “the Harmonised Elections, fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (2021),” the SEOM statement said.
The Carter Center said that “With the tabulation of results still underway at some tally centers, it is critical for Zimbabweans to wait for the announcement of the ZEC’s final results in the coming days, and for key political leaders to abide by the provisions of the Peace Pledge.” It added, “Given the highly polarized environment and lack of trust among political stakeholders, it is now especially critical for the ZEC to publish detailed results at the polling station level, allowing political parties and observers to cross-verify the results, in accordance with international best practice, to help ensure the transparency and credibility of the election process.” The Center had faced delays in getting some of its observers accredited and issued a press statement urging the government of Zimbabwe. “30 of the Carter Center’s 48 short-term observers still have not received accreditation from Zimbabwean authorities,” the statement said.
What applies to Zimbabwe, as a SADC country, are the regional Norms and Standards for Elections, the Principles for Election Management, Management, Monitoring, and Observation within SADC, and SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections. Five years ago, in 2018, Zimbabwe became a signatory to the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance.
He called on the international community to continue supporting the people of Zimbabwe, saying “The U.S. government and the international community must remain alert, continue to shine a light on the severe violations of Zimbabwe’s electoral law, and act to prevent further state violence against Zimbabweans.”
Senator Risch has called for a review of all aspects of the existing U.S.-Zimbabwe relationship. “Finally, we must reevaluate all facets of our relationship with a Zimbabwean government that ignores its people’s will and flouts its laws through acts of violence, looting, and impunity,” he urged.
In a statement published on Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Zimbabwe applauded Zimbabweans who it said, “faced significant obstacles and delays, who exercised their right to vote on August 23 and 24” yet showed patience, calm, and resilience while exercising their civic right to vote.” While it acknowledges that, in general on polling day, the atmosphere was largely peaceful,” it said that “the electoral process thus far did not meet many regional and international standards.”
The U.S. Embassy said it shared the same concerns expressed by SADC. “We share the deep concerns expressed by SADC and other international electoral observation missions,” adding that SEOM “cited problems with the transparency, independence, fairness, and credibility of electoral processes; undue restrictions on the rights to freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of expression that are guaranteed by Zimbabwe’s Constitution and reflected in regional guidelines; reports of voter intimidation; and the disenfranchisement of candidates, particularly women. We are also gravely concerned by the arrest of civil society members that we believe were conducting lawful, non-partisan election observation work.”
Likewise, the British Embassy in Harare echoed the International Election Observation Missions (IEUMs) in its statement, also published on Friday, “We echo the IEOMs regarding the arrest if 41 staff members from local election monitoring groups arrested by the Zimbabwean police on the night of 23 August,” adding that “Independent observers must be able to carry out their duties freely.”
The UK Embassy is supporting calls on the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) for transparency. The embassy said, “We support calls on the ZEC to deliver transparent counting and verification processes. In the event of electoral disputes, we support calls on all parties and citizens to follow legal and constitutional processes to maintain peace and calm.
The EU, in its statement, said “Curtailed rights and lack of level playing field compounded by intimidation; election day largely calm, but disorderly.”
U.S. Senator Jim Risch’s called for a complete review of U.S.-Zimbabwe relations in a statement also published on Friday. He has remained consistent, in the past, in being clear eyed and transparent about what his views, including stating previously that “Zimbabwean Leadership is the Cause of Crisis, Not Sanctions.”
In past years, critics have claimed that social media has little impact on voting behavior in Zimbabwe’s general, parliamentary, and local elections. Prior to the elections being held, the International Republican Institute (IRI) published its pre-election assessment.
At the community level, WhatsApp has significant penetration in both rural and urban areas. According to the IRI report, “dominant social media platform in Zimbabwe, accounting for nearly half (44 percent) of all mobile internet users in the country. Facebook, by comparison, accounts for only 1 percent.” It said that “Although the WhatsApp business platform does not permit political campaigning and the platform uses spam-detection technology to address misinformation and abnormal behavior such as mass messaging, IRI local stakeholders interviewed for this report have confirmed that WhatsApp is widely used by politicians, especially the ruling party, to disseminate false information and conspiracies.” Facebook has about 1.3 million users in Zimbabwe compared to Instagram’s estimated 381,700 users in the country. In comparison, “Twitter is used for critical discourse, allowing citizens to openly express their opinions about the country’s affairs,” and easier to use in terms of image and video use of data.
Pre-election Social Media Environment in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s pre-election environment had at least 3.7 million Zimbabwean who used WhatsApp. With a population of 16,622,6982 people, those of voting age totaled 8,602,412 people. Of this number, just 6,147,517 had registered to vote by 31 May 2023. The electoral process in the country is administered under the 2013 constitution, the Zimbabwe Electoral Act of 2008, and the Electoral Regulations of 2005.
Additionally, “Malign behavior online primarily targets journalists, women, and activists. The ruling party misuses its power to crack down on its opposition and rile up supporters online toward harassment and hate. The use of trolls and bot farms to control the narrative, whether through harassment or promoting a specific agenda, has become a well-established trend within the online space in Zimbabwe,” said a V-Dem Institute report on titled “DEMOCRACY REPORT 2023Defiance in the Face of Autocratization.”
The 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Zimbabwe published by the U.S. Department of State indicates “Numerous factors contributed to a flawed election process in 2018, including: the Zimbabwe Election Commission’s lack of independence; heavily biased state media favoring the ruling party; voter intimidation; the unconstitutional influence of tribal leaders; failure to provide an electronic preliminary voters roll; politicization of food aid; security services’ excessive use of force; and lack of transparency concerning election results.
Full statements can be found and read below:
Pearl Matibe is a Washington, DC-based White House Correspondent, and media commentator with expertise on U.S. foreign policy, and international security. You may follow her on Twitter: @PearlMatibe