Soldiers beat a supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change outside the party's headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 1 2018. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
Soldiers beat a supporter of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change outside the party's headquarters in Harare, Zimbabwe, August 1 2018. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

The questionable Zimbabwe election is fresh proof that in the modern world, elections have less and less to do with democracy. The incumbent leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was declared winner on Friday and his party, Zanu-PF, gained a constitutional majority in parliament. The manipulated outcome was the global norm rather than an exception.

Zimbabwe was an important test case for democratisation through elections given its post-colonial history. Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country for more than 37 years, had transformed himself from a revered national liberation leader into a dictator determined to hold on to power until he died. He was 93 when Mnangagwa, his on-and-off favorite for succession, deposed him in a military coup last year.

Despite Mnangagwa’s history of violence and intrigue (he had served as Mugabe’s chief enforcer, forming the ties within the military that later helped him take power), some Western analysts were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. They hoped he’d turn out to be a more pragmatic and less ideological leader than Mugabe, serious about rebuilding an economy trashed by ignorant monetary experiments, expropriations and massive corruption.

Besides, Mnangagwa promised to hold a credible election, and it even looked close, as Nelson Chamisa, a 40-year old lawyer and preacher at the head of the opposition Movement for Democratic change, mounted a strong challenge in Zimbabwe’s cities.

But any expectation of democratisation should have died long before Mnangagwa was declared victorious. Despite fashionable gimmicks such as biometric voter registration, this was a typical authoritarian election campaign with international observers noting voter coercion, the use of government resources to buy votes, ruling-party control of the media and a lack of transparency on the part of the election commission. As the votes were counted, some polling stations made the results public and others didn’t.

Chamisa, who prematurely declared victory before any official counting was done, maintains that the election was stolen from him. Mnangagwa unleashed the army on Chamisa’s supporters to put to rest any illusion that the outcome could be contested. Several people were killed.

Mnangagwa ended up with 50.8% of the official tally, while Chamisa was credited with 44.3%, but, as in all such elections, the numbers don’t really matter. In this case, they’re supposed to show that the election was closely fought and fairly won, so international financial institutions might have fewer doubts about Mnangagwa’s legitimacy. It may or may not work depending on the economic policy signals Mnangagwa sends out. Not being as reckless as Mugabe is probably the threshold of sufficiency for some investment and financial aid; democratisation would be too much to ask.

The Zimbabwe election pattern is typical of what is known in academic literature as "competitive authoritarianism." Russia and Turkey recently held similar elections, only without deadly violence in the final phase. In its 2017 World Development Report, the World Bank published a telltale chart showing an explosive growth in the number of electoral democracies since the 1980s – but a similarly steep decline in the number of free and fair elections. "Although they have become the most common mechanism to elect authorities around the world, elections are increasingly perceived as unfair," the report said.

The data on the decline in election fairness come from a 2014 study by Oxford University’s Sylvia Bishop and Anke Hoeffler, which pointed out that only 14 countries in the world didn’t hold elections in the previous decade, but that only about half of all elections held could be deemed free and fair. Authoritarian regimes, Bishop and Hoeffler wrote, hold elections to win propaganda points for supposed legitimacy, to gather information on allies, voters and adversaries, to project power, and to "coup-proof" themselves in the eyes of the military. Signaling for the sake of investors and donors, something especially important to Mnangagwa, is also a widespread motive: That’s why authoritarian regimes often don’t mind the presence of international observers, who tend to criticise some aspects of what they see but almost always praise some others.

Even though the election in Zimbabwe was obviously flawed, holding it may well pay off for Mnangagwa because relativism is widespread among investors. Christopher Dielmann, senior economist at Exotix Capital, a London-based investment bank specializing in emerging markets, commented:

With the election behind us, the question on investors’ minds will be whether or not Zimbabwe can now focus on rebuilding the economy, engaging with the international community, and eventually finding a way to achieve debt relief. The opposition concerns – especially the very narrow margin of victory that prevents a future runoff – and the violence of the past days will be weighed against an overall reduction in violence throughout the campaigning and election, and a greater degree of transparency than we’ve seen in the past. By many accounts, this imperfect election nevertheless delivered sufficient transparency, especially in relation to past results in the country, that should allow reengagement to occur relatively smoothly.

In a 2011 paper, political scientist Daniela Donno argued that elections can only lead to democratisation in an authoritarian regime when there is combined domestic and international pressure. Chamisa and his supporters have put strong domestic pressure on ZANU-PF, but there are no international actors strong and determined enough to provide the other necessary element. The US and the European Union are otherwise occupied. Neighbouring South Africa’s own democracy has wobbled recently as its governance grew more Zimbabwe-like under President Jacob Zuma, who was finally forced to resign earlier this year.

In a world largely run by authoritarian regimes with different degrees of competitiveness, Zimbabwe, after decades of ZANU-PF dominance, wasn’t suddenly going to become a poster child for democratisation.

The pattern seen there and elsewhere around the globe should mean something for the future of elections. To make them meaningful again, what’s needed is a broad, United Nations-level international consensus on precise standards for declaring an election free and fair. An international body should be empowered to observe elections and pass judgments that would be binding on international financial institutions, as important to institutional investments as credit ratings. It would be utopian, however, to expect the authoritarian regimes – including those in the UN Security Council – to allow any movement in this direction.