Preliminary reports in Zimbabwe point to “seriously compromised” presidential and parliamentary elections.

Some sources are stating that over 1 million voters were turned away from polls in the capital city of Harare, known as a stronghold for the opposition party. The exaggerated results in Harare and videos of President Robert Mugabe’s supporters being bused into other areas with unrecorded voter registration slips are just a few examples of the fundamental flaws in Zimbabwe’s elections on July 31.

Despite claims of widespread voter fraud, the African Union declared the elections to be peaceful, free, and fair, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will likely declare the elections to be credible as well. Peace has been prioritized over credibility, but the international community should judge the elections on the basis of both criteria. The U.S. should not settle for claims such as “at least there was no violence.”

The international community, including the SADC, has clearly stated standards for free and fair elections, and if the reports prove to be true about the serious irregularities and fraud in the Zimbabwean elections, under no circumstances should they be rubber-stamped as free and fair.

As we pointed out in an Issue Brief last week, the U.S. still has a role to play in promoting genuine democratic institutions:

If the upcoming elections prove to be fraudulent or characterized by violence, the U.S. should denounce the results, strengthen the current sanctions, call for a new election, and seek to engender support from the SADC and the international community.

In light of what looks to be a rigged election, the U.S. should start to strengthen current sanctions by preparing to add additional individuals to the sanctions list that played a hand in manipulating the democratic process in Zimbabwe. Doing so would send a message that such actions are not acceptable under any circumstances. Only when, according to U.S. law, “widely free and fair elections are held” (among other requirements) should the U.S. begin to consider removing sanctions.

Sadly, the biggest losers in Wednesday’s polls were the Zimbabwean people. The U.S. should not declare peaceful elections to be the gold standard in Zimbabwe; the Zimbabwean people deserve to have peaceful, free, and fair elections.