JOHANNESBURG — Zimbabwe holds elections on Wednesday, five years after the controversial 2008 vote, which was marred by violence and allegations of vote-rigging.
The southern African nation was awash in violence and instability, the economy was wracked by shortages and hyperinflation, and throughout, longtime President Robert Mugabe stood firm in his position that he had won the disputed vote.
Five years later, the picture in many ways looks similar. Mugabe is running for president again and is again being challenged by Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change. And again, rights groups say forces loyal to the president have intimidated and attacked voters, while the state broadcaster openly favors Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party.
But there have been some changes as well. For the past five years, Zimbabwe has been ruled by a lasting, if uneasy, power-sharing government consisting of ZANU-PF and the MDC.
Voters in March approved a new constitution which, among other things, limits all future presidents to two five-year terms. The referendum vote went relatively peacefully.
Even the former opposition has conceded Zimbabwe is faring better during this campaign than last time around. Kumbirai Muchemwa, a South Africa-based spokesman for the MDC, credits his party for that. But he hopes the world has not forgotten his country.
“Generally, Zimbabwe doesn’t seem to be a hopeless basket case, like it was in 2008. ... I don’t think the world is tired of the crisis in Zimbabwe," Muchemwa said. "The world is keen for Zimbabwe to move forward and take its place among the family of nations.”
Sue Valentine, Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says there have been reforms, and that the media climate has opened up somewhat with the addition of independent newspapers, although state media remains dominant.
She says it has further helped that Western countries have taken more of a hands-off approach to Zimbabwe's problems.
"And politically, the two warring parties have been forced to work together," Valentine said. "It’s not been a happy alliance, clearly. But there has been a level of, I think, engagement and political debate. Whether we’re seeing things as quieter because I think that there’s also been a stepping back -- by the U.K., the U.S., the West in general -- to allow the African Union and the Southern African Development Community, SADC, to take the lead to speak with the key players in Zimbabwe and to maintain pressure on them to follow due process.”
This time around, the concern might come after the vote, and Valentine says the world needs to pay attention.
“The word is that there are going to be any number of bunglings, and ballot papers are not going to be there and polling stations might open late," she said. "I think that there should be real close international attention on Zimbabwe. One of the difficulties is that countries that would like to send observers, have been denied that right. But I think there needs to be a very close scrutiny as to what happens."
Through all of the changes, the reforms and election rhetoric, one thing in Zimbabwe seems resistant to change. That would be Mugabe himself. The president, who is 89 years old, is running for another term. Under the new constitution, he could conceivably remain in office until 2023, just a few months short of his 100th birthday.