Zimbabwe’s next presidential election will be held in “four or five months” time, the country’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa said this week.
The first vote of the post-Mugabe era is, in its own way, just as momentous as the departure of the former president. One thing we know for sure: for the first time since independence, Robert Mugabe’s name will not be on the ballot. But will Emmerson Mnangagwa cement the legitimacy of the new regime and maintain Zanu-PF’s electoral dominance? Or will the beleaguered political opposition unite to finally install a new party in State House?
The man best placed to answer these questions is none other than Mnangagwa himself. The new president has inherited the political system designed so carefully, and over so many years, by Mugabe — a system in which the executive wields a disproportionate degree of power.
How Mnangagwa wields that power will determine the credibility of the election. If a recent interview is anything to go by, Zimbabweans have reason to be worried. “As a leader, you don’t have to take the nation where they want to go, but to where they ought to go,” said Mnangagwa, speaking to Newsday.
“If you want to remain in power, you will do what people want even if it’s not good [for the country]. But if you want to leave a legacy, then you have to make tough and hard decisions which will change their lives.”
Good leadership, in Mnangagwa’s book, is not necessarily about listening to the will of the people. It’s not hard to imagine from whom Mnangagwa might have picked up this bit of wisdom: he spent decades as one of Mugabe’s top lieutenants, and has been implicated in the worst excesses of the Mugabe regime, including the Gukurahundi massacre and the post-election violence in 2008.
Nonetheless, the new president has pledged to organise a free and fair election. But will he really implement the reforms necessary to guarantee the credibility of the vote?
In this context, the institution in most urgent need of reform is the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), which has been criticised for bias towards the ruling party.
“President Mnangagwa must design and implement a roadmap to peaceful, credible, free and fair elections whose key features include the appointment of a credible and independent chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission and ensuring the full independence and nonpartisanship of ZEC,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
It’s equally important to lift restrictions on the freedom of the press, as Mnangagwa acknowledged in his Newsday interview.
“The independent press should also do its work. It will be a sad day for democracy and the country if everyone was singing the same song,” he said.
He said nothing, however, about amending or repealing any of the controversial laws that make it difficult for journalists to do their jobs, such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and the Public Order and Security Act.
Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu, founder of the Africa Decolonial Research Network and a professor at Unisa, said Mnangagwa is likely to attempt to organise a free and fair election — not necessarily because he is a model democrat but because the fractured opposition is so weak that Mnangagwa doesn’t need to rig the results.
Mnangagwa will also benefit from the legitimacy conferred by a decisive, credible electoral victory.
Gatsheni-Ndlovu said: “This external legitimacy criteria is even more important now than ever before because it is linked with two important issues: the first is legalisation of the military coup [which brought Mnangagwa to power], and the second is the possibility of enabling Zimbabwe to be admitted back to the ambit of international community. The two have a bearing on the success of [Mnangagwa’s] attempts to revive the economy and attain full acceptance by the people of Zimbabwe.”