On July 31, Zimbabwe's two main political parties will go to the polls in frailer shape than when they entered the unity government arrangement in 2008. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), remains divided and its opposition credentials have been weakened as a result of having entered into the inclusive government arrangement. President Mugabe's ZANU-PF although also divided, enjoys the advantage of incumbency.
External influence leading up to the elections, including that of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has been limited but will be a critical factor in what happens afterwards. The 2008 post-election violence in Zimbabwe and Kenya required international mediation by regional organizations and international mediators, resulting in power-sharing agreements. Such arrangements addressed the violence in the streets but made the election results redundant. Elections need to have losers and winners.
Power-sharing agreements are no novelty in Africa. They have been used in times of transition in post-conflict or civil war contexts, or to transform one-party states to multiparty democracies. In other cases, as in Zimbabwe in 1979 and 1980, and in South Africa in 1993, a transitional government oversaw an end to a race-based regime.
The power-sharing arrangements of 2008 in Zimbabwe and Kenya marked a new trend in contemporary African politics. They came from contested elections, which, independent of the outcome, resulted in no losers. Although both countries have since seen some economic recovery, it is not clear if this was the result of governance through 'national unity' or from the reopening of an economic environment more conducive to international investment. Arguably the efficiency of two-headed governments is compromised, with outsized governments attempting to accommodate the prominent members of both political parties. Despite economic gains, in political terms the Zimbabwean agreement did not overcome party disputes, but rather made the main opposition more fragile and significantly damaged the institution of elections.
Although power-sharing was adopted by both Zimbabwe and Kenya, there are some key differences. Kenya did not have a nationalist party like ZANU-PF, competing against a developing and divided opposition. ZANU-PF came to power in 1980 and has governed Zimbabwe since. It carries with it the legacy of a liberation movement, which has historical and regional relevance and gives it considerable influence over the army and the police. The MDC, by contrast, was less than 10 years old at the time of the 2008 elections, and had no experience in governance, either local or national.
Elections do not guarantee democratization, but there is no democracy without elections. The 2008 elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya were not free of procedural problems but they were not a façade; it was the ensuing violence that forced international actors to impose a solution, and at the time, the urgency of the situation made the power-sharing option viable and necessary. But this option carries a heavy political cost and it can damage the public's perception of elections, which is the case in Zimbabwe.
If the country was divided before the power-sharing agreement, it is no less divided five years later. Credibility of elections has decreased among voters, while distrust between parties and even within parties has increased. The aim of power sharing in Zimbabwe was to end post-election violence. However, despite short-term gains the inclusive government has revealed the down-side of coerced coalition.
The 2008 violence has generated new uncertainties for 2013. The two parties dominating the contest are as bitter rivals now as they were in 2008 and may have developed an even greater intolerance for each other.
In the event of a resounding victory for ZANU-PF and President Mugabe, doubts about the credibility of the electoral process may rise and here SADC observers will play a crucial role in assessing the fairness of the process. For SADC’s own credibility it needs to be certain of its verdict, and to be seen as convincing in the eyes of Zimbabweans, the international community and also opinion in their own member countries. If the result is close, as in 2008, it is likely that the battle among the national actors will be repeated. The question then is what approach regional and international organizations can or should take this time. Forcing unwilling bedfellows into yet another power-sharing arrangement is unlikely, and could furthermore damage already fragile political institutions and undo economic gains.
Some creativity and courage will be required from the international community, and in particular from SADC. This is not asking much in light of the courage of the Zimbabwean electorate who, in an environment of fear, will still head to the polls.