With many international observers barred from covering Zimbabwe’s crunch election Wednesday, two African blocs are becoming the eyes and ears of the world in a stern test of their credibility.
When Robert Mugabe’s government released the list of roughly 50 countries and groups invited to observe this week’s crunch presidential and parliament elections, there were few surprises.
It was, in essence, a handpicked list of nations — Russia, Venezuela, China, Sudan, Cuba, Belarus and Iran — not usually known for their commitment to democracy.
While all embassies in Harare will be allowed five observers, fully blown missions from the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and anyone considered hostile to Mugabe’s attempt to extend his 33-year rule were blocked.
Hopes for a substantial and credible account of the election rest with the African Union (AU) and the 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC).
But even before an early civilian vote earlier this month ahead of the election had been cast, the AU’s 60-strong mission to monitor the vote appeared at risk of losing its democratic bona fides.
Amid the chaotic early vote for police and security personnel, serious doubts about the state of the electoral roll and rampant partisanship by state media, the AU expressed confidence in a free and fair vote.
“On the whole we got the impression that the preparations were satisfactory,” said AU commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
That raised eyebrows across the continent. Mugabe’s perennial challenger Morgan Tsvangirai went as far as to describe Dlamini-Zuma’s account of events as “misleading.”
For many, her comment had troubling echoes of the AU and SADC’s performance in previous elections.
Both declared a 2011 vote in the Democratic Republic of Congo successful, despite outside observers reporting a panoply of problems.
In Zimbabwe itself, SADC declared the recent constitutional referendum “peaceful and credible” despite the detention of prominent human rights lawyers and Tsvangirai allies.
“The reason you want international monitors is to have actors that are more likely to be neutral,” said Judith Kelley, author of “Monitoring Democracy”, a book on election monitors.
“Both the AU and SADC are likely to enter this election with some bias because of their membership countries’ affiliation with Zimbabwe.”
But for SADC in particular, much is riding on its take on the vote.
The EU, after decades of playing bad cop, seems set to defer to SADC’s verdict on the vote.
“We don’t have the right to continue with (sanctions) if the elections are acceptable,” Roeland van de Geer, the EU’s ambassador to South Africa, said recently. “But it has to be clear that’s true.”
And in many ways these elections are of SADC’s making.
Fed up with chronic instability and a flood of Zimbabwean economic refugees across their borders, the bloc forced Mugabe and Tsvangirai into a power-sharing government following the bloodshed of the 2008 vote.
It also forced both men to agree a new constitution which paved the way for the vote.
But SADC still has to prove it is dependable.
“The Southern African Development Community and the African Union face severe credibility tests,” the International Crisis Group said in a report published Monday.
“There is growing concern, however, that both organisations may opt for a narrow evaluation of the elections.”
“If the vote is deeply flawed, they should declare it illegitimate and press for a re-run after several months of careful preparation or, if that is not possible, facilitate negotiation of a compromise acceptable to the major parties.”
In the coming days as election reports are released, many will be closely monitoring the monitors.