Zimbabwe’s Fraud Watch

Robert Mugabe, the tyrannical ruler of Zimbabwe for 28 years, is renowned for outsmarting his opponents—from civil society groups and the political opposition to neighboring South Africa and former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair. But during the presidential and parliamentary polling underway in the crisis-ridden southern African state, a secretive group of compatriots may have gotten the jump on Mugabe. Determined to prepare for the possibility of a rigged election, they have created an elaborate alternative system for reporting ballot counts from polling stations. Although official counts for Saturday's election have been delayed, the Independent Results Centre has already announced that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai have won in a landside.

Given the country's history of electoral fraud, the clandestine group's findings are likely to be widely perceived as at least as plausible as the official ones. The group deployed trained polling agents, equipped with phones and cameras, throughout the country on election day Saturday, and they counted voters and took photographs of voting results pasted up at voting stations (a previously unobserved requirement of voting regulations). The information was sent via text message or satellite phone to a call center in South Africa, where it was collated and posted at www.zimelectionresults.com for all to see. "These will be archived on this Web site later as forensic evidence," the site says. "A separate report on discrepancies will be filed on the site later."

If the official Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which has come under serious fire for its conduct of polls in the past, declares Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party victors later this week, the MDC will be prepared. Data, photographic and other kinds of evidence collected on poll results will be used to support an election challenge in the event of a Mugabe victory, according to MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti. The group, which refuses to be identified at this stage for fear of reprisals, comprises "very credible Zimbabweans currently outside the country," says Professor John Makumbe, a political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe. "And what they have published so far is also believable."

Ever since Mugabe's de facto one-party state faced its first serious challenge in 2000, his ZANU-PF government has become increasingly oppressive and corrupt, plunging the country into a series of crises that have delivered 100,000 percent inflation, 80 percent unemployment, persistent shortages of food and basic goods, and a runaway HIV-AIDS epidemic. In response, in the past year the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional grouping of 14 countries, mediated an agreement between ZANU-PF and the MDC whereby the authorities would abide by regulations stipulating that the results of ballot counts be posted at each poll. In this election cycle, opposition supporters seized the opportunity.

The ZEC, which initially promised that the results would be out early this morning, has been slow in releasing counts from polling stations that were mostly completed in the early hours of Sunday. That has fueled fears that the commission, which is beholden to the ruling party, has been manipulating the vote. Its chairman, George Chiweshe, has blamed the delay on the fact that this is the first time that presidential, parliamentary and local elections have been held at the same time. According to first results released today by the commission, the MDC and ZANU-PF are running neck and neck, with each winning 19 seats so far out of a total of 210 parliamentary constituencies. There have been no results for the presidential election, which pitted Mugabe, 84, against Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist and leader of the main branch of the MDC, and Simba Makoni, a former ZANU-PF finance minister, who decided in February to challenge Mugabe after the party failed to reform from within or relieve the aging president of his grip on power.

Meanwhile, riot police and security forces have been patrolling the streets of the capital, Harare, and second city, Bulawayo. The U.S. embassy said postelection uncertainty had raised the potential for violence and issued a warning to Americans in the country to move to safe locations.

The Independent Results Centre has been ahead of the ZEC in announcing figures. It has Tsvangirai winning 58 percent of the presidential vote against 37 percent for Mugabe and 5 percent for Makoni. It says that the MDC won 117 of the 187 seats in Parliament, ZANU-PF won 50, and independent candidates or a splinter MDC group won 20.

In mid-March, Libyan leader Muammar Kaddafi suggested that liberation war hero Mugabe should be allowed to stay in power until he dies and not be "disturbed" by elections. Zimbabweans apparently don't agree. Perhaps encouraged by the mediation this past summer, they have turned out in greater numbers than in the last presidential elections in 2002, observers say, though figures were unavailable. "Turnout has been low," says Makumbe, "but it would have been much lower if people had felt that there was no point at all in going to the polls." If it appears that the election was rigged, many Zimbabweans might also begin to wonder why they bothered.