Instead of jubilation, a silence fell upon Harare late last week. Final results in Zimbabwe’s contested general election had just been announced, purporting to hand a narrow 50.8 percent victory to former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, an ally of longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, who was recently deposed after decades in power. In claiming his win, Mnangagwa, who is in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, embraced the results as free and fair. Nelson Chamisa, the 40-year-old opposition candidate, and his Movement for Democratic Change Alliance claimed the election was rigged in favor of Mnangagwa. A preliminary statement by the European Union Election Observation Mission to Zimbabwe painted the election campaign as peaceful, with “political freedoms” generally respected, but went on to accuse the state of the same anti-democratic tactics that have marred prior contests. Mnangagwa became the interim president after Mugabe’s presidency came to an end last November in a chaotic series of events that resulted in a military coup.
Amid all the election chaos, the complexity of Zimbabwe’s political landscape — and its native voices — can easily be lost as coverage is filtered through foreign reporters, a result of decades of nonexistent press freedom under Mugabe. The media can ignore or oversimplify important history and context: Zimbabwe is often depicted simply as a land of turmoil overseen by a strongman, with events likely to be distilled to violent moments.
Last week’s election presented an opportunity to regain some democratic control and perhaps show the world that, in the post-Mugabe era, Zimbabwean voices matter. If truly democratic elections could be certified by outside election monitors, Zimbabwe may well have been on the path to repairing its international standing, ending sanctions, and restoring a destroyed economy. Yet the election failed to deliver, instead maintaining the status quo — Mnangagwa’s victory has kept ZANU-PF the only political party to ever hold office in the country.