As Zimbabweans go to the polls on July 31, there is already press commentary that, unlike in 2008, these elections will be (relatively) non-violent. The election preparations were a technical shambles. That means that the African election observers (from the Southern African Development Community and the African Union) as well as those of us looking on from the outside are unlikely to reach credible conclusions.
It will be difficult to answer questions of whether the polling has been free and fair or even who won absent a tidal wave of support for one of the presidential candidates. However, we will be able to comment on levels of violence. If there is a runoff, the likelihood of violence increases, as it did in 2008.
Violence in the Zimbabwean context is complex. There have been waves of government-sponsored violence in Zimbabwe since the 1980s–the violence after the 2008 elections was only the most recent. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has run a security state based on terror, the intensity of which varies with the circumstances. But, it is always there. Fear of violence is deeply entrenched among many Zimbabweans, especially outside of Mugabe’s core ZANU-PF support base. There are plenty of anecdotes that ruling party-allied security services are reminding potential opposition voters of that history, and the mere reminder engenders sufficient fear to have the desired consequences.
There is also the rural/urban dichotomy. Violence in urban areas is much more easily observed than in the countryside. Yet it is in the rural areas that violence has been widespread in the past. Zimbabwe remains a rural nation; it is in the countryside that most voters reside. Robert Mugabe and his dominant ZANU-PF party is especially strong among parts of the peasantry. Violence in ZANU-PF dominated areas against political and ethnic outsiders could have some popular support. In any event, unless it is of a significant magnitude, election observers–and the outside media–are unlikely to see it. Yet it could have a significant impact on the outcome of the elections.
Finally, for hardliners in ZANU-PF, the legitimacy of the state comes not from constitutions or elections but rather from fealty to the heritage of the independence struggle. ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe are the custodians of that heritage. They will therefore try to ensure a ZANU-PF victory, at any cost.