Zimbabwe's Stolen Presidential Election Demands a U.S. Response

Report Africa

Zimbabwe's Stolen Presidential Election Demands a U.S. Response

March 14, 2002 9 min read
Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs
Brett D. Schaefer is the Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at Heritage's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

President Robert Mugabe and his political cronies in the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) exercised no restraint in making sure he would win another term in the March 9-10 presidential election. Over the past year, Mugabe instituted measures that further destroyed the country's economy and trampled the rule of law,1 even sanctioning attacks on opposition supporters, in his single-minded determination to remain in office. Moreover, his supporters used various measures to steal the election and prevent people from voting, including vote fraud, intimidation, and delays. Following a court-ordered third day of voting on March 11, the official results show that Mugabe's tactics were successful in an election that was neither free nor fair.

Before the election, the United States and the European Union (EU) had imposed "smart sanctions" targeting Mugabe and his inner circle of advisers as punishment for their brutal policies.2 This approach should be expanded by the Bush Administration to include a ban on multilateral and bilateral assistance to Mugabe's illegitimate government, a downgrading of diplomatic ties, and direct support for the opposition. Shunning Mugabe politically and economically in such ways may have an adverse effect on the people of Zimbabwe in the short term, but short-term hardship is necessary to eliminate the greatest impediments to to their long-term best interests: Mugabe's repressive economic and political policies.

Mugabe's Despicable Record

President Mugabe's unacceptable efforts to secure re-election include:

  • Instituting ruinous economic policies. Mugabe has pursued a number of policies that have destroyed the Zimbabwean economy to increase his popularity, such as expropriating farms under the rubric of land redistribution, threatening to nationalize businesses, imposing price controls, increasing government salaries with little regard for budget constraints, and fueling inflation by printing money to finance government expenditures.3 The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that Zimbabwe's government ran a deficit of 11.5 percent of gross domestic product in 2001, with the economy shrinking by over 7 percent.4 Inflation last year was well over 100 percent, and unemployment is now over 60 percent.5 Yet Mugabe steadfastly refused to adopt the reforms necessary to restore economic stability; both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) refuse to lend to Zimbabwe while its government refuses to implement policies that would restore economic stability.
  • Trampling the rule of law and freedom of speech. In an effort to increase support for his presidency, Mugabe set in motion a plan to confiscate farmland without compensation, later urging his supporters to illegally occupy land owned by political rivals. This policy was pursued openly despite condemnation by the Zimbabwean Supreme Court, which ruled the invasions unconstitutional. The government has a monopoly on broadcast media and has outlawed criticism of President Mugabe and harassed independent print media.
  • Attacking political opponents. The Economist Intelligence Unit also reports that President Mugabe has employed "state-sponsored political violence against supporters of the opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), measures to suppress the judiciary and the media, and attempts to manipulate the electoral register."6 Government-sanctioned violence against his political rivals led to the deaths of at least 26 people in 2002 alone, as well as numerous beatings and other assaults and willful destruction and damage of private property.7
  • Impeding efforts of impartial election observers. Because Mugabe's tactics would not have passed muster, any efforts to ensure a free and fair election were stymied. Election monitors from the EU, for example, were prevented from conducting their mission by President Mugabe, who would not allow observers from certain EU nations to monitor the elections.8 As a result, the only notable election observers were from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional organization consisting of representatives from Zimbabwe and 13 neighboring nations, and the Commonwealth. In the past, these organizations have been reluctant to criticize Mugabe and his tactics; it is therefore likely that they will express only moderate reservations to these election results--which is unfortunate, since the elections were neither fair or free.

What Washington Should Do

When the European Union election monitors were prevented from fulfilling their mission, the EU and the United States retaliated by applying "smart sanctions" targeting Mugabe and other important members of his administration. These sanctions included a travel ban on Mugabe and high-level members of his government and their families, as well as a freeze on their overseas financial assets.

Such measures are appropriate and should be broadened to apply to more officials in the Mugabe government. In addition, the Bush Administration, along with other democratic nations, should complement the targeted sanctions by taking steps in the near term to:

  • Downgrade diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe while the illegitimate Mugabe government remains in power. The United States should recall its ambassador, leaving minimal staff in the U.S. embassy in Zimbabwe to aid U.S. citizens and businesses that remain in the country. The Bush Administration should maintain ties with Mugabe's opposition as well as coordinate non-governmental aid efforts.
  • Deny bilateral assistance to the Mugabe government. The temporary suspension of U.S. bilateral aid should be continued until free and fair elections are held. Assistance to the suffering citizens of Zimbabwe should be provided only through non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and charities that work independently of the Zimbabwean government to avoid strengthening Mugabe's hold on power. Other democratic nations should be encouraged to support this policy by adopting similar restrictions on bilateral aid to Zimbabwe.
  • Oppose multilateral assistance to the Mugabe government. Multilateral assistance from the World Bank and the IMF, which is extended only to governments, should be suspended until free and fair elections are held in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is currently unable to borrow from the World Bank and the IMF because of its failure to pay its existing loans on time but would be eligible for new loans once it reached agreement with the institutions for repayment.9

    This situation in Zimbabwe is more serious than Zimbabwe's arrears to international financial institutions. Mugabe and his cronies alone are responsible for Zimbabwe's economic crisis, and they should not be rewarded for sacrificing the prosperity of ordinary Zimbabweans for their own political interests. While the United States, as the largest donor to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, has significant influence over their lending decisions, it cannot by itself prevent them from providing new loans to Zimbabwe. Therefore, it is imperative that the Bush Administration voice serious opposition to any additional multilateral assistance to Zimbabwe until independent monitors from both the United States and the EU verify that free and fair elections are held; the Administration also should solicit the support of other key donor nations for that policy.10

  • Support democracy-building efforts in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has a vibrant civil society that has defied Mugabe's efforts at suppression. America should encourage and support democracy in Zimbabwe through public diplomacy, education, and support for NGOs. Specifically, America should provide assistance to democratic entities in Zimbabwe to give them more resources with which to campaign against the powerful ZANU-PF and to expose the repressive nature of the Mugabe government, help fund private broadcast media as alternatives to the government monopoly, and increase funding for the Voice of America to expand operations in Zimbabwe. Once a new date for the presidential election is announced, the United States should insist that independent election observers from the United States--for example, from the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs--be permitted to monitor the election in Zimbabwe.

Failure to punish Mugabe through such direct actions would have negative repercussions across the region, sending the message to repressive governments that elections by any means and regardless of how flawed are acceptable to the international community generally and the United States specifically. The minimally acceptable standard desired by the international community is free, fair, and transparent elections that establish representative governments and that seek to adhere to the rule of law.


Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has criticized the "smart sanctions" imposed by the European Union and the United States as "economic terrorism," but it is Mugabe and his cronies who terrorize Zimbabwean citizens in a desperate attempt to maintain power. The United States and its allies should warn Mugabe that a stolen election will not absolve him of responsibility for his despicable actions that include murder and that increase poverty and the destruction of the rule of law in Zimbabwe.

Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs in the Center for International Trade and Economics at The Heritage Foundation.

1. Zimbabwe's economic policies and enforcement of the rule of law have grown increasingly worse over the past decades. This decline is documented in the Index of Economic Freedom between 1995 and 2001. The 2002 Index classifies Zimbabwe as a "repressed" economy characterized by corruption, bureaucratic impediments, and weak rule of law. See Gerald P. O'Driscoll, Jr., Kim R. Holmes, and Mary Anastasia O'Grady, 2002 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation and Dow Jones and Company, Inc., 2002), pp. 425-426.

2. See White House, "Zimbabwe Proclamation: Suspension of Entry as Immigrants and Nonimmigrants of Persons Responsible for Actions that Threaten Zimbabwe's Democratic Institutions and Transition to a Multi-Party Democracy," press release, March 4, 2002, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2002/02/20020222-4.html , and Judy Dempsey, "EU Imposes Immediate Sanctions on Zimbabwe," The Financial Times , February 19, 2002.

3. See Brett D. Schaefer, "Past Time to Isolate Zimbabwe," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 747, May 10, 2001, and Brett D. Schaefer, "How Washington Should Respond to Instability in Zimbabwe," Heritage Foundation Executive Memorandum No. 705, November 2, 2000.

4. "Zimbabwe Country Report," Economist Intelligence Unit, February 2002, pp. 3-5.

5. Ibid .

6. Ibid ., p. 1 (Overview).

7. George B. N. Ayittey, "Power Grab: Zimbabwe's Tyrant," The Wall Street Journal Europe , March 8, 2002, p. A8.

8. Mugabe refused to accept monitors from Britain, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Finland. See "EU Sanctions on Mugabe," Irish Times , February 19, 2002, p. 13.

9. World Bank Group, "World Bank Places Zimbabwe on Non-Payment Status," News Release No. 2001/082/AFR, October 3, 2000, at http://lnweb18.worldbank.org/news/pressrelease.nsf/
, and International Monetary Fund, "IMF Declares Zimbabwe Ineligible to Use IMF Resources," Press Release No. 01/40, September 25, 2001, at http://www.imf.org/external/np/sec/pr/2001/pr0140.htm .

10. The key donors are Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These countries are the primary donors to the World Bank and the IMF, controlling approximately 40 percent of the voting stock in the IMF and the World Bank, and the institutions are unlikely to lend over their objections. However, with the cooperation of a small number of other donors to reach 50 percent of the voting stock, these nations can block lending decisions.


Brett Schaefer

Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs