Robert Mugabe was declared winner of the Zimbabwean election on Saturday, but the struggle over the meaning of the outcome continues. For some it represents a "patriotic vote" by millions of Zimbabweans who are returning to the party of liberation. For others it has simply been an illegitimate election. Beyond the sound and fury, what does it all mean for Zimbabwe?
Concerns about the election are real, and cannot simply be dismissed as sour grapes. On polling day many urban voters failed to find their names on the electoral roll, for reasons which the electoral commission is yet to adequately explain. But it is not at all certain that these issues alone cost the Movement for Democratic Change overall victory.
Why? Because, hiding in plain sight is an inconvenient truth: in most of the rural areas, Zimbabweans voted for Mugabe's Zanu-PF. They did so for different reasons. For some, memories of the violence after the 2008 elections meant a "safety" vote for the party which could best guarantee – or take away – their physical security. Some MDC voters, incensed by having unelected candidates foisted on them for the elections, went for a bhora musango (protest vote) in favour of Zanu-PF. More important is the fact that Zanu-PF started their 2013 electoral preparations as soon as the 2009 government of national unity was formed between Mugabe's party and the split MDC, one part led by Morgan Tsvangirai, one led by Arthur Mutambara and Welshman Ncube. While the two MDCs were slowly learning how government functions, Zanu-PF quickly moved ahead to prepare a strategy for an electoral counter-strike. Over the last four years the party has worked hard to rebuild its base, localise its message and register its voters.
Mugabe will probably want to see out his term to provide stability to a party which has been wracked by internal tensions. His next cabinet will probably include a mix of party veterans and young turks. But the new government will have to deliver on promises of job creation, service delivery, equitable wealth sharing and investor security. Zanu-PF will need to implement a truly national, rather than party-political, vision for development in Zimbabwe.
There will be transformation too for Tsvangirai's MDC. Its forthcoming dossier on electoral irregularities is necessary and valuable, but it also needs to analyse why so many Zimbabweans voted for Zanu-PF. Part of the problem has been the feeling that the party is at heart a non-governmental organisation writ large. For its own sake, the MDC's "change" mantra will have to start from within.
The wider landscape of opposition politics in Zimbabwe is also changed; Zimbabwe's next parliament will be the largest in history, with 270 MPs. There will be a new kind of pluralism; fewer political parties in the national assembly but an improved gender representation, with more women in parliament. Gender issues, health and education and domestic violence will be high on the agenda, but serious constitutional debate may be compromised. National politics will, for a time, become the politics of local government.
Zimbabwe's 2013 elections will also have wider repercussions. They allowed the Southern African Development Community and the African Union to close ranks and take a common approach based as much on stability as on democracy. A decisive result was what was wanted; and that was what was delivered. The results have been a unifying force for Africa's regional and continental bodies, which are still recovering from the divisiveness of the Libya intervention in 2010 and the AU commission elections in 2012. Zimbabwe will also formally rejoin the international community.
But it is also clear that, in private, there have been real concerns within the African community about the elections. The long-term result will be that Zimbabwe, along with developments in Egypt, becomes part of a revived global debate about the meaning of electoral and popular democracy; and whether stability or human rights is the ultimate criterion.
So what should the west do? Both the US and UK have expressed deep reservations about the poll. But Labour MEP Baroness Kinnock, who has publicly stated her reasoned opposition to EU recognition of a flawed poll, has pointed out that the EU already has agreements in place obliging it to follow the regional verdict in Africa's south. The EU is thus locked into a recognition pathway which it abandons at its peril. Despite the justifiable concerns about the process and results, the simple fact is that the 2013 elections are not going to be re-run.
In addition, the EU is a major development partner for Zimbabwe and also funds various local civil society groups. Continuing with sanctions and retreating to confrontationalism would not only irreparably damage EU relations with Africa but could also punish ordinary Zimbabweans, including the very civil society groups which the EU promotes. In politics and diplomacy, being inside the tent, however reluctantly, is more effective than shouting from outside.
Ultimately, the EU will probably give a heavily caveated recognition of the polls and the new government. It is, however, also likely that EU recognition of the new reality in Zimbabwe will cause friction with the more hardline US and Australian positions. Indeed, Zimbabwe could add to the increasingly spiky EU-US relations in the wake of the Snowden revelations about US spying on EU embassies.
These are anxious and exciting times for Zimbabwe and its diaspora. It is to be hoped that the world gives Zimbabwe a chance; and that the new government there gives the people – all of them – a chance, too.
Knox Chitiyo is associate fellow of the Africa programme at Chatham House.