by Yana Makuwa
The Zimbabwean elections in 2008 arrived during total economic disrepair and a peak moment of national frustration with the government, which had been controlled by Robert Mugabe and his party Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) since the country’s independence in 1980. This nominally socialist party that won the right to Black-majority rule decades prior was faced in the 2000’s with resistance to the violent strong-arm tactics Mugabe used to establish single party rule, conduct unsuccessful land reforms, and retain power. Electoral resistance to the regime had been raised before, with a contested election in 2002. At that time, however, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party remained in power with the support of the African Union (AU), despite condemnations of misconduct from international observers and the opposition party: the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which was founded in 1999 by members of Zimbabwe’s trade union alliances in opposition to a constitutional referendum giving powers to the government to conduct land reforms. The AU’s support in 2002 is one of several markers showing that at the start of the decade, despite corroborated reports of political violence and social upheaval, Mugabe’s hold on the presidency was strong enough that challenges to its legitimacy—however valid—could be easily put aside (especially by other national leaders whose power may have been more or less democratically established). However, by 2007, with the environment of corruption, the growing inflation escalating from 8,000% to 100,000% by early 2008, and unemployment reaching throughout the country, the citizens of Zimbabwe were increasingly desperate for a change in regime.
29 March 2008 : Zimbabwean voters came to the polls after several months of campaigning against Mugabe from both independent Simba Makoni, who broke from the ZANU-PF ranks to run against Mugabe, and long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC. Both Makoni and Tsvangirai ran largely on platforms of economic reform, speaking to the desperation of the people and a strong desire for change. Makoni stood in as a more middle-of-the-road option attempting to capture ZANU-PF loyals who nevertheless couldn’t deny the dire conditions, while Tsvangirai maintained a long history of challenge to the status quo. Initial assessments appeared to be favoring Tsvangirai, but official results were slow to come out, and would in fact be delayed for several weeks.
2 April 2008 : After official results were delayed, the opposition party, the MDC, announced their accounting of the elections with Tsvangirai as the clear winner with more than half of the votes, based on the parliamentary results, confirmed by the official Zimbabwe Electoral Commision (ZEC), which showed MDC winning 105 of the 207 seats, and the party’s own count of the still-delayed presidential votes. This announcement spurred celebration and enthusiasm among people who had felt held back by the regime for years. However, these outcomes were rejected outright by the incumbent party, with the government characterizing the MDC’s announcement as a coup that preempted the official announcement of the ZEC.
2 May 2008 : One full month later, with frustratingly minimal information on the count leading up to this point, the ZEC’s official results were announced. These results reported slightly under half the votes to Tsvangirai (47.9%) with Mugabe close behind. A small but significant percentage of votes to Makoni solidified his role as one of the critical figures in this election. Without his candidacy to split the votes, a majority would likely have been declared for either Mugabe or Tsvangirai. However, because neither of the frontrunning candidates received a full majority, a run-off election was called and scheduled for 27 June 2008.
9 June 2008 : Human Rights Watch issued a statement regarding the blatantly targeted political violence that began after the official election results were announced. Focusing on rural areas that the ZANU-PF party were surprised to have lost to the opposition, “war veterans,” officials and youths affiliated with the party, and the army together launched a campaign of beatings and killings, targeting not only individuals who may have voted for Tsvangirai but also threatening hospitals and medical workers attempting to treat the wounded, destroying property, and displacing thousands of people.
22 June 2008 : Tsvangirai announced his withdrawal from the election, due to the unchecked campaign of violence sponsored Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. In his letter to the electoral commission, he alluded to violence and suppression of his campaign prior to this election, and declared “The violence, intimidation, death, destruction of property is just too much for anyone to dream of a free and fair election let alone expect our people to be able to freely and independently express to free themselves. For this reason, my party and I have resolved that we cannot be part to this flawed process. For the avoidance of any doubt the presidential election question remains unresolved until such time a free and fair election is held.”
27 June 2008 : Elections were held despite Tsvangirai’s withdrawal and objections from independent observers and the international community. Mugabe won in a landslide, with roughly 85% of the votes.
After the election there was a period of negotiations attempting to establish a joint government between ZANU-PF and two factions of the MDC, which however largely amounted to stalled progress and failed attempts. Talks continued into the following year, with the uncertainty of control of power proving destabilizing for the nation and the region more generally. Eventually, buckling under local and international pressures, Tsvangirai agreed to join the new government as prime minister, with Mugabe remaining as president. The Zimbabwe Government of National Unity, as it was called, ultimately did very little to shift control of the country away from Mugabe and ZANU-PF. The joint government moved forward with virtually no acknowledgement of the violence that took place, with Human Rights Watch conducting a further report in 2011 on the impunity with which the government continued to treat its violence. The power that Mugabe was able to re-consolidate after the 2008 election continued to define the lives of Zimbabweans for years after, and the effects of his regime are being dealt with to this day.