On May 30 2018, President Emmerson Mnangagwa finally set the date for the long-anticipated Zimbabwean elections. The polls will inevitably be remarkable as they are the first in 38 years without former President Robert Mugabe on the ballot. The opposition is also fronting a new and untested candidate following the death of opposition titan, Morgan Tsvangirai, in February. As a result, this election has quickly moved into uncharted territory.
While Zanu-PF has used extensive electoral manipulation, intimidation and violence in the past, they are more constrained in 2018 by vastly increased global interest in the polls. Following nearly 20 years as a pariah state, relations between Zimbabwe and the international community have begun to thaw in 2018. President Mnangagwa, who came to power in a military coup in November, is eager to assert his democratic credentials to give the government the legitimacy boost that it needs to restart international lending.
The 2018 election is the last hurdle that he needs to clear before his government will get the global stamp of approval.
The ‘New Dispensation’
In trying to garner such legitimacy, Mnangagwa is trying hard to show that it will truly be a new Zimbabwe under his leadership. There have been some positive moves in terms of electoral administration. In early June, the Judicial Services Commission appointed and deployed magistrates to deal with politically-motivated violence during the campaign.
The National Peace and Reconciliation Commission appears to be throwing off its long hibernation since its creation in 2013. The enabling act for the country’s transitional justice mechanism was only passed in 2018, under the new administration. The opposition also seems to have been able to mobilise largely unhindered – contrary to their experiences of sustained state harassment during previous polls.
The MDC Alliance held a protest in front of the Electoral Commission’s offices on June 5 in Harare and many expected it to be marred by clashes with a planned Zanu-PF counter-demonstration. However, this was called off by the ruling party’s leadership who were wary of attracting negative publicity and compromising the credibility of the election.
Plus ça change…
But despite the claims of a “new dispensation”, few things have changed for ordinary Zimbabweans since November. Cash and foreign exchange shortages continue to cripple the economy, formal unemployment remains stubbornly at over 90% and public services are still woefully inadequate. The government recently raised the ire of the public sector by firing 16 000 striking nurses from an already-paralysed healthcare system. It is hard to see how Zimbabwean voters could possibly vote for the party that has overseen the country’s protracted decline.
But Mnangagwa remains the incumbent and that comes with major advantages. The public media have continued to largely exclude the opposition and trumpet the president’s successes and the electoral commission has begun to stall key processes for verifying the credibility of the process. The opposition appears to be woefully underfunded and the ruling party is believed to currently be out-spending them by nearly $50 to every dollar they spend.
Although the president has promised a free and fair election, there remain worrying signs of intimidation in rural areas. A deputy minister announced at a rally in late May that the army would not allow the opposition to take power and although it was quickly denounced by the ruling party, it cements existing fears by many Zimbabweans of the dangers that elections pose. Just-released Afrobarometer survey results suggest that the majority of voters don’t believe that the army will allow the opposition to win the polls.
The Electoral Resource Centre, a Harare-based NGO, recently released findings that while electoral administration appears to have improved in the 2018 polls, the use of intimidation, vote buying and the widespread belief that there is no secrecy of the ballot undermines the process. But at the same time, the electoral commission failed to put the ballot procurement out to tender, raising serious concerns about the secrecy ZEC has maintained around the chosen providers of key electoral materials. This was a major concern in the 2013 polls, and it undermined the credibility of the process.
What about the Opposition?
The opposition lost their long-running leader on Valentine’s Day and suffered through a damaging succession process. But contrary to experiences in 2008 and 2013, a broad coalition of opposition forces has united behind 40-year old Advocate Nelson Chamisa. He is running on a platform which seeks to maximise the youth vote, dubbed #GenerationalConsensus. Up against a 75-year old incumbent, Chamisa has made much of his youthful energy during the campaign, stopping to do push-ups during marches in the capital.
With a young population, few of whom remember the horrors of the 1970s liberation war and had little experience of the prosperity of the 1980s and early 1990s, Zimbabwe’s youths only know economic contraction and joblessness. Chamisa is selling big ideas, like bullet trains and bringing the football World Cup to Harare. It’s hard to say how Zimbabweans feel about these promises.
The opposition is struggling against serious financial shortcomings after most of their traditional funders abandoned them after the 2013 elections. Polls released by Afrobarometer suggest that while support for the opposition has increased (from a very low base), they remain several points behind the incumbent. Their rallies have thus far been well-attended, but it’s unclear whether they can convert rally attendance into votes on 30 July.
Finally, the opposition coalition appears to be considering a very risky strategy. Although Mugabe was pushed out of power, he doesn’t seem happy to be away from the political fray. Most of the members of Zanu-PF who were forced out in the wake of the November coup have resurfaced in the newly-created and (ostensibly) Mugabe-backed National Patriotic Front. In a shock move at the MDC protest on 5 June, members of this party endorsed the MDC Alliance ahead of the polls.
A cash-strapped opposition is now trying to gauge whether Mugabe’s endorsement would be good or bad for their electoral prospects. In Zimbabwe’s rapidly reconfiguring politics, it’s hard to reliably predict the effects of such cross-party collaboration. For a country that suffered for so long under Mugabe, it might just be enough to push some staunch opposition members out of the electoral process. But proponents argue that any help is good help against Mnangagwa’s “junta”.
With less than two months to go until the elections, all bets are off in Zimbabwe.
Nicole Beardsworth is a researcher at the University of York’s Interdisciplinary Global Development Center.
This article was first published on the Presidential Power blog.