PRESIDENT DEMONSTRATES WHY AUTOCRACIES PERSIST
Imagine that Donald Trump has won the 2024 election but resigns due to poor health in 2027 and his vice president becomes president. Then in 2028 his Republican successor runs against the Democratic presidential candidate. The latter runs a popular campaign, with large mass rallies, to return to office in the name of “democracy” but loses even though votes for the Democratic candidate for president clearly exceed those for the Republican incumbent.
That’s the lens through which the documentary President may be viewed. Directed by Camilla Nielsson, the film covers the presidential election of 2018 in Zimbabwe. There are differences, of course. For example, Robert Mugabe, who ruled the country autocratically since independence in 1980, was ousted by a military coup from within his ranks in 2017. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s vice president, was then elevated to the presidency, and a new constitution was written for the country.
Mnangagwa’s opponent, 40-year-old Nelson Chamisa, emerges a few months before the election when his party’s candidate dies. Chamisa is even endorsed by Mugabe. But then the pathway of 2018 seems predictable:
First, Chamisa has overwhelming support at rallies, so he appears to be the candidate who will win. But suddenly Mnangagwa appoints a new member to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), whose members have been previously selected by the autocratic government. Ballots are then printed without input or approval from Chamisa’s political party. Nevertheless, international observers are admitted to the country to observe whether the election will be conducted in a “free, fair, and credible” manner. Although results seem clear on election night, since Chamisa was the favorite in polling, ZEC delays announcement of election results until five days later, citing that interval as prescribed by law. When ZEC announces the vote count, there are clear irregularities—for example, an impossible 260,000 persons are recorded as having voting within an hour in one province. Protests arise, broken up by police. A press conference by Chamisa is cancelled and then allowed. Chamisa’s next move is to contest the election count before the Constitutional Court, whose members had been selected some time ago by the autocratic regime. High-powered attorneys from South Africa arrive in the country to assist Chamisa, but they are denied entry into the Constitutional Court chamber to make arguments on behalf of Chamisa. Both sides present their cases, but Chamisa’s petition is rejected. What happened next is left in doubt because the documentary abruptly ends with Chamisa insisting that he will never give up.
Nevertheless, international observers claim that the election was not “free and fair.” Chamisa has not retained control of his party, and the Constitutional Court even ruled that someone else is the party’s head. And his party is planning to put yet another candidate forward in the next election. Undeterred, Chamisa plans to run again anyway. Although he was gunned down one day in 2021, he is still active politically.
As for Democrats and Republicans in the United States, they have much to learn from the film. MH