Zimbabwe President and ZANU-PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa in Esigodini Matebeleland South. (Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

The Africa Report proves again to be the go-to source for analysis of democracy in the continent. Nic Cheeseman, the chair of CEDAR at the University of Birmingham, writes what many have thought for some time now.

When I looked at Election Observation Missions in 2021, I recalled the line from the movie, Gangs of New York.

“Remember the first rule of politics. The ballots don’t make the results, the counters make the results. The counters. Keep counting.” – Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed in “Gangs of New York” (2002)

James Broadbent as Boss Tweed

See Nic’s piece The Africa Report As the Carter Center heads to Zimbabwe, when should election observers stay at home?

International election observers are on their way to Zimbabwe for the 2023 general election. Teams from the European Union, Carter Centre and the African Union will be joined by other groups. It is already clear, however, that the ZANU-PF government is intent on manipulating not only the elections, but also the observation process itself.

Along with growing concern that election observation missions that pull their punches risk legitimising authoritarian political systems, recent events in Zimbabwe raise important questions….

What good can observers do if governments are determined to stay in power? If repressive regimes place constraints on observers, should they make a point of publicly refusing to deploy? Answering these questions requires us to look at the impact of observers in recent years, and consider the risk that their absence could make elections even worse. …

Observers therefore need to be willing to clearly state that the electoral environment is unacceptable if they are to avoid creating a fig-leaf of respectability for ZANU-PF to hide behind. It is particularly concerning that the observation process itself has been manipulated. Let us hope that, as in Sierra Leone, the observers operating in Zimbabwe find their voice, building on the precedent on 2018 when some groups issued pre-electoral statements highlighting key problems before the polls….

It is when observers allow strategically smart governments to set the terms of their engagement and soften their criticisms that they would better serve democracy by staying at home.