Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe prepares to cast his vote in Highfields outside Harare, July 31, 2013. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Zimbabweans took their hopes and aspirations to more than 9 000 polling stations to cast their ballots on July 31.
Many analysts in Zimbabwe and throughout the world predicted a close contest between longtime president Robert Mugabe and his chief rival, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, but on August 3 the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) announced a historic landslide, with Mugabe winning more than 60% of the popular vote and his party securing an overwhelming two-thirds majority in Parliament.
The proceedings on election day were largely peaceful but the many legal violations leading up to the vote, combined with reports of irregularities and allegations of voter fraud on election day itself, have provided the international community with ample reason to doubt the integrity of the outcome. This should prompt an immediate and thorough investigation by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) before the election results are certified.
In March this year, I led an international human rights delegation to Zimbabwe that documented the concerns of ordinary citizens, including the violation of the rights of individuals and civil society organisations participating in the electoral process.
During our visit, I heard countless tales of intimidation, harassment, violence and the arbitrary detention of activists, as well as of infringements of freedom of expression and access to information.
I received a taste of that repression first-hand: our hotel rooms were visited by shady state agents and our delegation was stopped, searched and questioned repeatedly by police.
By all accounts, violations of basic political rights and civil liberties continued throughout the electoral process and were not adequately remedied by the state authorities responsible.
Most troubling is that many credible reports suggest the electoral register was manipulated to provide the Mugabe regime with the latitude to tilt the election unequivocally in its favour, with reports that more than one million deceased voters and more than 100 000 citizens over the age of 100 remained on the roll.
The fact that an electronic form of the register was not made available to the political opposition or to civil society organisations before election day is unacceptable and a clear violation of domestic law and international electoral standards.
On election day itself, it is estimated that between 700 000 and one million voters, mainly in areas sympathetic to the opposition, were disenfranchised – they were turned away at polling stations.
In a statement on August 2, SADC was quick to label the election as “free and peaceful”, though it stopped short of calling the results credible, and for good reason. One civic group has documented nearly 2 000 total breaches of SADC’s principles and guidelines governing democratic elections.
Although SADC acknowledged a number of electoral irregularities in its preliminary assessment, the regional body has yet to take a definitive stand. Instead of applying its own standards to reach a conclusive and even-handed judgment, SADC has undermined the prospects of democracy in Zimbabwe but also for the region.
With important elections coming up in South Africa, Malawi, Namibia and, most worryingly, Mozambique, which is currently experiencing serious political strife, this is no time for SADC to stand idly by or blindly to disregard its own guiding principles.
The SADC summit this weekend in Malawi provides a timely opportunity for regional leaders to hear the concerns of all parties involved in Zimbabwe’s electoral dispute, including those of domestic civil society and observation teams. In the long term, a meaningful focus by the full SADC summit would restore some much-needed credibility in the eyes of citizens of the region and the international community.
The onus is on SADC to live up to its own standards of fairness and to guarantee that the principles of justice and democracy thrive in Zimbabwe and the region.
SADC members must redouble their commitment to demand truly free, fair and credible elections. A lack of physical violence, while certainly a marked improvement for Zimbabwe, does not itself constitute a credible election.
This article was originally published on Mail & Guardian