Zimbabwe's expats would be the ultimate swing vote, given the country only has 13 million residents and 6.4 million registered voters.
Freeman Chari carries the weight of Zimbabwe’s history – in his name.
Born in 1981, just a year after a grueling civil war that ousted his country’s white government and lifted the black majority into power, Mr. Chari was among the first of his countrymen to grow up literally a free man.
But three decades later, Chari now reflects Zimbabwe’s history in another way: Like millions of others he has fled his homeland, and he does not know when or if he will be able to go back.
Displaced Zimbabweans are scattered around the world: They tend gardens in South Africa, deliver babies in London, teach high school in Botswana, and develop software in California. Like Chari, many Zimbabwe natives find themselves biding their time abroad waiting for the long rule of President Robert Mugabe – 33 years and counting – to end. They hope Mr. Mugabe's departure will conclude the political repression and economic malaise that have settled over their home country in recent years.
But there’s one major obstacle to achieving that goal: Unless they return, Zimbabwe's expatriates cannot vote in Wednesday's election.
“We live with our lives on pause, waiting for this government to go away,” says Chari, who now lives with his wife in Ohio. “These guys know that if they open the vote to us, that’s the end – they will lose.”
The majority of countries in the world allow their citizens to vote from beyond their borders. And the issue arguably means more for those from Africa, where the long arc of colonialism and its aftermath – civil wars, political repression, economic upheaval – have propelled millions abroad in recent decades.
Zimbabwe presents a classic case of this diaspora. As many as 4 million Zimbabweans live outside the southern African nation’s borders, according to government estimates. That's out of a country of only 13 million. Zimbabwe's towns and cities are peppered with billboards advertising services to collect money wired from abroad. The registered voter total for Zimbabwe's election Wednesday is 6.4 million.
Zimbabweans who want to vote from abroad also face their country's profound disconnect between between the written law and the behavior of those who enforce it. Zimbabwe has a progressive Constitution – approved by voters earlier this year – that guarantees every adult citizen the right to vote. And in February an international body, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, ordered Zimbabwe to allow those who could not return home to vote via postal service.
But Mugabe’s white-knuckle grip on power rarely allows for niceties like following international law, and he and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) party refused to comply.
“That’s predictable,” says Gabriel Shumba, the exiled Zimbabwean human rights lawyer who brought the case before the Commission. “If there is no political will, the only other recourse we have is to use this ruling to pressure other governments to step in.”
The problem, Mr. Shumba says, is that many foreign governments – including the regional powerhouse, South Africa – are skittish about getting directly involved in Zimbabwe’s noxious politics.
Regional governments “are just barking dogs,” says Chari. “They bark and they bark but they will never bite.”
That hands-off approach by Zimbabwe's neighbors stretches back across decades of shared history, says Mwangi Kimenyi, an expert on African politics and development at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution.
“South Africa has been good to Mugabe because he was good to them” in the darkest years of that country’s long freedom movement, Mr. Kimenyi says. “I don’t think they would ever call for diaspora voting rights because they know it would work against Mugabe and he would see it as direct opposition.”
Indeed, the diaspora as a voting bloc would likely skew strongly in favor of the challengers in Wednesday's election, led by Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, Kimenyi adds.
It’s not hard to see why. Like many active in politics, Shumba was tortured by the Zimbabwean government in 2003. Chari, for his part, was blacklisted by employers after he became heavily involved in anti-government student politics at the University of Zimbabwe.
Then too, many of those who did not flee Zimbabwe because of political repression found themselves on the run from an all-out economic collapse in the late 2000s. In November 2008 Zimbabwe’s inflation rate hit 6.5 sextillion (that's a "1" followed by 21 zeros) percent – a situation that hardly reflected positively on the ruling party.
In general, African diaspora communities can be muscular agents of political change, Kimenyi says, because of their familiarity with democratic norms and processes outside of their home countries. Also, when united abroad in a national group, some émigré communities have less ethnically-centered politics.
“They are people who are more educated, more informed, more inclined to better governance,” he says. “They could be the ones to tip the balance.”
But that won’t be the case in Zimbabwe, at least not this time around.
Instead, the Zimbabwean diaspora is holding vigils and staging protests around the world to mark the occasion of their country’s July 31 vote.
In neighboring South Africa's Johannesburg on Tuesday, security guards shooed off three Zimbabwean protesters who chained themselves to a massive statue of Nelson Mandela in a plaza outside a popular mall. Asked by a Reuters reporter what inspired the action, Butholezwe Nyathi said he wanted a new government to come to power that had the democratic principles of Mr. Mandela so that he could go home at last.
"We are afraid,” he said, “that if the will of the people is subverted … we will be stuck here forever.”
[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the day that of Zimbabwe's elections. They are on Wednesday, July 31.]