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Polls opened for Zimbabwe’s summer elections on July 14 with two days of early voting for police and soldiers. Unfortunately, the elections are already mired in corruption. The country’s electoral commission extended early voting one more day, an apparent violation of the constitution. That followed what Amnesty International called an “alarming crackdown” by longtime dictator Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party on the main opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.


The already-tainted elections speak to the murky fate of the power-sharing agreement struck between ZANU-PF, the MDC, and a smaller third party in 2008. After the MDC won the first round of the country’s presidential elections in 2008, ZANU-PF launched a campaign of violence to ensure that Mugabe remained in office. Tsvangirai—his literally, if not electorally, beaten opponent—took a “leap of faith” and decided to work with ZANU-PF, which had tormented him for over a decade, to improve human rights and prepare the country for legitimate elections. At first, the agreement appeared to improve the lives of Zimbabweans. A spokesperson for the MDC said that by staunching the violence, it “brought normalcy in our social and political life.” The agreement also stabilized the country’s plummeting economy, adding jobs and arresting an epidemic of cholera.


But it quickly became clear that Mugabe had no interest in cultivating democracy or preparing for legitimate elections. Only a year into the agreement, Human Rights Watch declared the unity government a “sham,” arguing that there had been “no meaningful political transition.” With no means of enforcing the arrangement, Tsvangirai could only express frustration as Mugabe continued to repress the opposition, nominate loyalists to key positions, and stymie the implementation of provisions meant to ensure free and fair elections. When Zimbabweans go to the polls on July 31, they will vote under conditions all too similar to those in 2008.


The power-sharing agreement staved off an economic and political collapse that would have left Zimbabwe in shambles. In many ways, however, it put democratic progress in suspended animation. That is why Tsvangirai has vowed that regardless of the outcome this month, he will refuse to enter another unity government. Even if Mugabe wins, a principled opposition may be Zimbabwe’s best hope for a democratic future.


Jordan Chandler Hirsch is a special contributor to the Freedom Square blog. Formerly a Staff Editor at Foreign Affairs, he has published opinion pieces in numerous national newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He is currently a J.D. Candidate at Yale Law School.