A Dictator’s Guide to Rigging Elections: Lessons Learned from Mugabe

via A Dictator’s Guide to Rigging Elections: Lessons Learned from Zimbabwe’s Puppet Master | Freedom House November 13, 2013 by Jenai Cox

More than 100 days after he stole his latest reelection, it is safe to say that Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has gotten away with the crime. Other leaders in the region may be studying his methods, which makes it all the more important for democracy advocates to do the same.

In 2008, Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party essentially lost at the ballot box, and remained in power only by pursuing a campaign of political violence that caused his main presidential challenger to withdraw from the runoff vote. Moreover, amid international pressure and economic collapse, he was forced to accept a power-sharing agreement. But this year Mugabe was able to engineer a win that did not trigger the same international criticism. Both the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) deemed the July 31 elections to be “generally” credible, finding that any irregularities would not have changed the outcome: a supermajority in Parliament for ZANU-PF and an overwhelming presidential victory for Mugabe.

In devising an election strategy for 2013, Mugabe had to account for greater outside scrutiny, as the violence of 2008 had put Zimbabwe permanently on SADC’s agenda. The updated election playbook also had to take into consideration the increased use of technology in Zimbabwe. Over the past five years, access to mobile phones has grown dramatically. According to the International Telecommunication Union, Zimbabwe now has an estimated mobile subscription rate of 97 percent. These new factors meant that Mugabe had to work harder and with more cunning. He could no longer use blatant election-day fraud or brute force to win.

Step one: Begin the rigging process well in advance.

In order to avoid any violence or overt manipulation on election day, Mugabe began his rigging activities well before an official poll date was even confirmed. The first voter registration drive kicked off in May 2013, focusing mainly on ZANU-PF strongholds in the north. This allowed the party to get a head start in the process. Less than two weeks after the Constitutional Court’s ruling on an application to set an election date, Mugabe unilaterally announced that the vote would be held on July 31. Critics of the move argued not only that it violated the 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA), which required the president to consult all parties when determining an election date, but also that the date itself contradicted provisions in the new constitution and reduced the number of days available for voter registration.

Step two: Allow superficial democratic reforms, but keep big-ticket items off the negotiating table.

While the stated goals of the GPA were broad, its primary purpose—in the aftermath of the 2008 political violence—was to clearly outline the legal and institutional reforms necessary for the country to hold free, fair, and credible elections. Among the GPA’s 25 articles were provisions calling for a new constitution, depoliticization of state institutions and the security sector, liberalization of the media sector, and prosecution of the perpetrators of politically motivated violence. The pact gave rise to a multiparty Government of National Unity (GNU), but after five years of power sharing, it had failed to implement almost all of the required reforms. The only task accomplished was the passage of a more progressive constitution and bill of rights. Mugabe interpreted the conclusion of the constitutional ratification process as marking the expiration of the GNU, meaning elections had to be held immediately, even though the basic electoral reforms prescribed under the new constitution had not yet been enacted. The absence of such reforms aided Mugabe in his efforts to manipulate the election process.

Step three: Take control of the state media.

Lack of media reforms prior to the elections had a significant impact on news coverage of the process. On election day itself, the media were highly polarized along party lines and generally biased in their reporting. According to the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe, news outlets carried stories on all parties, but 90 percent of the coverage of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was negative. It is noteworthy, if not surprising, that the biggest perpetrator of hate speech during the election period was Mugabe himself.

Step four: Stack the courts with supporters who will uphold your constitutionally questionable decisions.

Manipulation of the judicial system started early in the election process. In May 2013, following a court application in which an activist affiliated with ZANU-PF sought to “compel” Mugabe to set an election date, the Constitutional Court ruled that elections must be held by July 31. Despite domestic and regional pressure, the court ruled against postponing the vote by two weeks, declaring that election preparations were already under way. The Constitutional Court’s decision clearly violated the constitution, reinforcing the perception that it is a Mugabe puppet.

Step five: Seize control of the election machinery and make sure that your rigged triumph is plausible.

Determined to avoid another period of power sharing, Mugabe made a concerted effort to rig a margin of victory that would be plausible (something short of 99 percent), but also large enough to negate the need for a runoff vote. The incumbent president ultimately won 61 percent of the ballots, according to official results. He argued that he was able to obtain more votes than in 2008 because of a renewed effort to attract support through his indigenous and black empowerment programs. However, Mugabe also benefited from his heavy influence over the voter registration process. The chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, Judge Rita Makarau, was a former ZANU-PF lawmaker, while the registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede, had been leading the registrar’s office for more than three decades.

Step six: Avoid the use of violence at all costs.

Demonstrating that he had learned the greatest lesson from 2008, Mugabe this time restrained party members and supporters, including youth militias, and prevented a repeat of the 2008 electoral violence. Only a handful of reports of politically motivated violence emerged on election day, and none garnered any significant international attention. Both SADC and AU observer missions were quick to declare the July 31 election peaceful, and therefore credible. Nevertheless, members of civil society and the opposition were subject to intimidation, arrest, and other forms of persecution throughout the election process. In the run-up to the constitutional referendum earlier in the year, nearly a dozen civil society organizations had their offices raided by state security personnel, and many prominent civil society leaders and human rights defenders were arrested on spurious charges.

Step seven: Declare that the people have spoken, and do not look back.

On August 22, Mugabe was sworn in for his sixth term as president with the same pomp and circumstance as in his first inauguration 33 years ago. The ceremony, held at the National Sport Stadium, was attended by foreign dignitaries and a crowd of 60,000. The event was initially delayed by a court petition filed by his main rival, Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC, over allegations of widespread electoral fraud. But the Constitutional Court dismissed the case, declaring that the election was free, fair, and credible. Once the ruling was announced, Mugabe never looked back. Immediately after his inauguration, he appointed a new cabinet and began phasing out officials who were brought in by the MDC under the power-sharing government. Mugabe was also quick to place blame for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis on continued sanctions by the United States and Europe.

Having successfully overcome the electoral hurdle, Mugabe will face few checks on his power. The GNU’s failure to repeal restrictive laws—including the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), the Criminal Reform and Codification Act, and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA)—means that the government will remain empowered to severely limit citizens’ fundamental freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. It also means that further declines in political rights and civil liberties will most likely occur, resulting in the reemergence of a pre-2008 environment.

At the regional level, emulation of the Zimbabwean model is a growing concern. Over the next year a total of six countries in SADC will hold elections. Several of the votes are expected to be very contentious, and the incumbents up for reelection may use Mugabe’s playbook in order to secure a win, risking similarly disastrous results for democracy and human rights.

This post is the first in a three-part series on Zimbabwe.


  • comment-avatar

    Are we really talking about what MDC attempted to do here.
    Control of the media look at the number of MDC news papers funded by the west for anti government propaganda.
    50 million a month into propaganda media.
    Look at sites overseas like SWA.
    Just think if the law worked the medias properly monitored with heavy fines we could give this money the poor caused by irresponsible journalists.

    • comment-avatar
      Boss MyAss 9 years ago

      A hallucination is a perception in the absence of apparent stimulus which has qualities of real perception. Hallucinations are vivid, substantial, and located in external objective space. They are distinguished from the related phenomena of dreaming, which does not involve wakefulness; illusion, which involves distorted or misinterpreted real perception; imagery, which does not mimic real perception and is under voluntary control; and pseudo-hallucination, which does not mimic real perception, but is not under voluntary control.

    • comment-avatar
      Chivulamapoti 9 years ago

      Your English is awful! Can’t understand what the hell you’re saying!

      • comment-avatar

        My comment is easy to understand, try reading it again slowly, sentence by sentence if that fails have a word with your school teacher

      • comment-avatar
        Boss MyAss 9 years ago

        MY English is awful? MINE? Are you sure brother? The thing about being autistic is that you gradually get less and less autistic, because you keep learning, you keep learning how to behave. It’s like being in a play; I’m always in a play.

  • comment-avatar

    What an easy recipe for the ANC of South Africa, Swapo of Namibia, the MPLA of Angola, Frelimo of Mozambique, old Satas party in Zambia, Lady Joice Banda of Malawi and Chama Chamapinduzi of Tanzania! But the biggest problem for the “democracy advocators” is the Western countries who reject and endorse like what the Americans and the French have done. The ordinary people are made to believe that there is something called “democracy” yet in reality it is the interests of these countries. If they believe that their interests are safe then there is “democracy.” Its them now saying “Mugabe now perhaps yes may be there no here now lets engage”. I see them as the source of all the suffering for the ordinary people.

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    Boss MyAss 9 years ago

    No food, no money, no education, no water, no electricity, no roads, no lights, no freedom, no human rights, no dignity, no future, no respect, no self-esteem, no civilization, no beliefs, no ethics, no common sense, no moral values, no principles. I am proud black racist, living with fear, xenophobia, corruption, surrounded by beggars, wise guys, savages, simpletons. I have no history, I expect nothing, I am nothing, and I am the global disgrace. All I care is the colour of the skin of others and my God the almighty U.S dollar. Live and let die. I am good for nothing. “God save his Excellency the KING Robert Mugabe” who saved us from the big bad wolf the bustard whites and took absolutely everything from us for his self and his gang. I am the most selfish and stupid person in Africa, I am free and proud to be Zimbabwean.

    Zimbabwe is guilty of perpetuating this dictatorship. The middle class, who join the Central Intelligence Organisation, for example, in droves to buttress the oppression of Zimbabweans, are guilty. The greedy businesspersons, small traders and economic chancers we hear about every day who continue to seek political favour to gain an unfair advantage are also guilty of perpetuating a system that oppresses them. We have also seen how those that are in opposition politics and claim to represent the interests of those who want an outside have become persuaded and are now complicit in strengthening this tyranny. Most of us have, therefore, played a decisive role and in part created the very conditions that we continue to complain against and blame. Can a dictatorship such as this be dislodged through free and fair elections? Can our society destroy this pervasive and evil foundation from within? No, unless the international community aggressively intervenes because change can only be fuelled from outside our society.

    In Zimbabwe, it has created a persuasive and repetitive myth that only one man can be President for life; that only Zanu PF members can have access to new opportunities and lead a better life than most; that only those who are politically connected through birth, association or sheer audacity must have an advantage and be entitled unbridled access to the wealth of Zimbabwe. That only our “freedom” fighters can be heroes.
    It will not be easy to change our circumstances or move our country into a modern democracy because we have been psychologically complicit in creating a social system that does not respect our own needs and aspirations. Our tyranny is manufactured by the people of Zimbabwe, for the people of Zimbabwe — that is the hardest fact to accept. You see, dictatorships can only arise and flourish where very specific conditions are met. Critical to an effective dictatorship are people with a low self-esteem and who have a victim mentality. People who believe it is outside them that change can emanate. In such instances, the political leadership must also meet these same conditions; they must have a destructive and incessant low self-esteem and must, therefore, put to good use all tools and forms of oppression to shield their egos and vulnerability.They must continually claim all that is good in society, and blame all that is bad on others. This works in arresting potential, stifling growth, spreading poverty and hopelessness so that citizens may remain complainants to a system that they abhor. Dictators mirror their low self-esteem on the society which they seek to oppress and in that society, must be those individuals who are willing to support that low self-esteem with theirs. A dictator must surround himself with praise singers and charlatans whose only interest is to see how they can benefit from the dictator. The dictator will then reward those who praise and fear him and incarcerate or injure those who refuse to do so.

  • comment-avatar
    Shame 9 years ago

    Haiwawo Tikwanirei

  • comment-avatar

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