One reason Nigeria’s February elections were so disappointing for champions of democracy in Africa was the sense of dashed hopes–not for a particular outcome, but for a process that would deepen public trust and strengthen the bonds of accountability between the governing and the governed. Because Nigeria had undertaken important election reforms and invested in technical upgrades intended to bolster integrity and transparency, would-be voters and observers saw an opportunity for a major step forward in the country’s democratic trajectory. The dismay many expressed in the wake of the general election was grounded in a sense that electoral authorities had let the voters down.
In another of the continent’s major elections slated for this year, the state is taking the opposite approach. Rather than raising the hopes of citizens that this summer’s election will be an improvement on the last, Zimbabwe’s authorities seem to be doing their best to dampen would-be voters’ enthusiasm. The repressive political climate is depressingly familiar. The state continues to persecute opposition politicians and voices of dissent, and has taken steps to further curtail freedom of expression and association. Police have even stopped musicians from performing songs that condemn corruption.
Against this backdrop, Zimbabwe’s Electoral Commission (ZEC), like all other state institutions, is blatantly politicized and sowing mistrust with its preparations to date. A highly controversial delimitation exercise prompted accusations of foul play at best, and incompetence at worst, from politicians, civil society, and even some members of the ZEC itself. Despite legal requirements to make the voters roll available for review, ZEC has thrown up barriers to transparency at every turn. Thus far, voter registration efforts, a critically important part of any credible exercise for a country in which large new cohorts of citizens reach the age of enfranchisement every year, have inspired more mistrust than confidence. Citizens wishing to register have encountered delays, equipment failures, and power outages. It’s not hard to see why recent polling indicated that less than half of Zimbabwe’s citizens trust the ZEC.
As the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition put it in an open letter to President Mnangagwa this month, “the road to Elections 2023 has started on a very bad note.” It will be up to Zimbabwean citizens to initiate any momentum away from the country’s long downward trajectory. But that’s a tall order for a people struggling to make ends meet, and jaded by politics that are so blatantly engineered to enrich and protect a political and security elite at the expense of everyone else. In recent polling, Afrobarometer found that young Zimbabweans are significantly less likely to participate in the electoral process than older generations, perhaps because their experience tells them that elections are not a meaningful way to get government to respond to their needs.
As the United States looks ahead to a calendar full of complex election scenarios in the region, policymakers need a more effective toolkit to combat the insidious influence of this kind of cynical electoral charade, which drags down enthusiasm for democratic governance and ultimately strengthens the hands of all authoritarians, not just those in Zimbabwe. When “democracy” is reduced to fatally flawed elections that deliver no accountability, reliable rule of law or demand-driven governance, just an expensive exercise in imposing the will of the powerful, the standard playbook of enumerating flaws in the process is insufficient. At the upcoming U.S. Summit for Democracy, finding ways to enlist regional partners in combatting this dangerous conflation of elections, however flawed, and actual democratic governance should be at the top of the agenda.