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Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections
Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections
Zimbabwe’s Very Peculiar Coup
Zimbabwe’s Very Peculiar Coup
A polling agent looks on while a voter dips her finger in the inedible ink during parliamentary by-elections at a polling station in Bulawayo on 10 June 2015. AFP/Zinyange Auntony
Commentary / Africa

Mugabe’s Brittle By-election Victory Bodes Ill for Zimbabwe’s 2018 Elections

The ruling ZANU-PF is exploiting the many weaknesses of Zimbabwe’s electoral system to outpace the country’s divided opposition. Yet without a real change of policy, the country seems doomed to steeper decline.

The landslide victory of President Robert Mugabe’s ruling party in a 21 January by-election in Zimbabwe’s Bikita West constituency is a troubling bellwether for the future of the country. It signals that presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-2018 are unlikely to be credible, free or fair, and also that without fundamental change through a legitimate election, Harare will maintain the self-destructive policies that have done so much damage.

In Bikita West, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) candidate, Beauty Chabaya, promoted from its provincial women’s league, won with 77.9 per cent of the vote. The opposition complained of assaults, intimidation and threats of retribution by senior ZANU-PF figures against disloyal voters – the identification of whom was easier as voting results are broken down by polling station. Local party structures and traditional authorities also helped to monitor voters and in the run-up to the poll reportedly manipulated the distribution of food aid and farming inputs.

President Mugabe sent a clear directive that the constituency be won at all costs

The Bikita West vote was the latest in a series of by-elections being watched for how Zimbabwe and the ZANU-PF will fare, not just in next year’s elections, but also during the transition from more than three decades of rule by the ailing President Robert Mugabe, 92.

Zimbabwe’s Relentless Decline

Credible elections in 2018 will be crucial for arresting Zimbabwe’s precipitous decline. Considered a middle-income country in the 1990’s, the economy nearly halved in the 2000s and has not recovered since. A large number of skilled workers in the government and private sector have left the country. According to the World Bank, 72 per cent of the population is poor and 20 per cent live in extreme poverty.

Zimbabweans, despite exposure to much poor governance, put great store in a legitimate electoral process leading to reform. But this will require more than simply depoliticising the institutional machinery responsible for elections. More years of unchanged policies would further entrench a corrupt government and predatory state incapable of decisive change, leading to further social stagnation, economic slowdown and risks for the future stability and development of the region.

More years of unchanged policies would further entrench a corrupt government and predatory state incapable of decisive change

The opposition has struggled to make an impact following the 2013 elections defeat of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) and subsequent turmoil within that party that resulted in the vacation of many parliamentary seats. The main opposition’s subsequent boycott has allowed ZANU-PF to win all but one of more than 20 post-2013 by-election contests and grow its two-thirds majority in parliament.

The ruling party’s shock loss in the Norton constituency in the October 2016 by-election was seen by some as a sign of its vulnerability. The MDC-T and Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People’s First (ZimPF) coordinated with disaffected war veterans to elect the independent candidate, Themba Mliswa (a former ZANU-PF parliamentarian and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s cousin). Some argue Mliswa’s victory demonstrated that a unified opposition could win, even without meaningful electoral reforms. 

But others contend that the loss was a result of a contest between ZANU-PF factions, and that the nominally independent Mliswa was a stalking horse for Vice President Mnangagwa against the official ZANU-PF candidate, Ronald Chindedza, who was loyal to a rival faction of the party.

ZANU-PF’s Show of Force

There were no signs of ruling party vulnerability in Bikita West: President Mugabe sent a clear directive that the constituency be won at all costs; ZANU-PF presented a united front; and MDC-T and war veterans did not close ranks behind the main opposition candidate, ZimPF’s Kudakwashe Gopo.

Opposition parties continue to talk, but, riven by infighting, have neither fully joined forces, nor been able to take advantage of ZANU-PF’s internal discord either. ZANU-PF’s most significant challenge remains the choice of Mugabe’s successor. Mugabe was re-endorsed at the party’s National Conference in December as its presidential candidate for the 2018 elections, when he will be 94. With his physical capacities visibly waning, his failure to put in place a clear succession plan appears to be designed both to temper the ambitions of Mnangagwa, who is regarded by many as an obvious heir, and also to soothe the frustrations of those opposed to the vice president. The intra-party discord and jockeying is likely to frustrate political and economic reform and thus Western re-engagement.

But that is not enough to make the opposition trust institutions like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the police and the courts

The sweeping victory for the ruling party in Bikita West raises deeper questions about the scale of popular support for the opposition. The National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA), an umbrella opposition campaigning platform, retains an official position of boycotting elections until the process is reformed, but has failed to present a united political front. The MDC-T has boycotted all by-elections because promised reforms remain largely unaddressed, but others have joined in to varying extents.

It is unclear why ZimPF, a member of NERA, put up a candidate in the Bikita West election at all. There were internal ZimPF tensions over whether or not to participate, and the provincial party leaders who pushed against it have now resigned. In the end, the failure of ZimPF’s candidate in Bikita West has now damaged ZimPF leader Mujuru’s prospects of leading an opposition coalition in the 2018 elections.

Addressing Zimbabwe’s Electoral Weakness

ZANU-PF vehemently denies allegations by the opposition and civil society of wrongdoing in Bikita West. But that is not enough to make the opposition trust institutions like the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the police and the courts, which should be able to combat these violations. Severely underfunded after producing reports critical of the government, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) cannot launch a serious inquiry into the elections.

The region could help. The Southern Africa Development Community and African Union have developed a framework for electoral conditions, and should launch an assessment of Zimbabwe’s democratic progress and shortfalls. They should carefully consider the concerns raised by NERA and others, and propose realistic reform implementation timelines ahead of the polls.

Powers from further afield will be less willing to engage the more compromised the legitimacy of the regime becomes. Even then they will have to tread carefully, balancing support for improving institutional capacities and addressing problems, without inadvertently adding to distortions of what is already a skewed electoral environment.

The March by-election in Mwenezi East promises to test conditions once again, as a senior ZimPF leader and former ZANU-PF firebrand, Kudakwashe Bhasikiti, runs in his former constituency. The Bikita West by-election highlights how much still needs to be done – both by the ruling ZANU-PF and the opposition.        

An armoured personnel carrier stations by an intersection as Zimbabwean soldiers regulate traffic in Harare on 15 November 2017. AFP
Commentary / Africa

Zimbabwe’s Very Peculiar Coup

Zimbabwe’s military has detained the country’s 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace Mugabe, and taken control of the streets of the capital and the main television station. The next step – apparently, a legitimate-looking transfer of power to someone of the army’s choosing – may prove less easy.

The Zimbabwe Defense Forces have taken control of the country. What exactly happened?

The crisis burst into the open on 6 November when President Mugabe fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and expelled him from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Mnangagwa has been aligned with the military and Zimbabwe’s National Liberation War Veterans Association, and had been in a fierce struggle for power in the race to succeed the country’s 93-year-old leader. His principal opponent was Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, who heads a rival faction of ZANU-PF veterans known as the G40, leads the women’s wing and is popular among young party activists.

The army then unambiguously stepped in. A statement on 13 November by the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, called for an end to the unfolding purge of party elements that took part in Zimbabwe’s fifteen-year war of liberation from white rule, and warned that the army would intervene against any threat to the integrity of the revolution that led to Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Almost 24 hours later, the party’s spokesperson, Ambassador SK Moyo, accused Chiwenga of treasonous utterances and overstepping his mandate. Then, early on 15 November, troops took control of the government’s media headquarters and other important buildings.

The military urged the sixteen million Zimbabweans to “limit unnecessary movement” and have called for calm among key components of the state, the judiciary, parliamentarians, the security sector, churches, youth formations, traditional leaders and other political actors. Military vehicles were parked on the streets, but on the morning of 15 November this did not discourage Zimbabweans from going about their lives almost as normal. Incidents of violence appear to have been minimal, with few reports of gunfire and some of beatings. There is no evidence of overt division within the security sector.

An effective news blackout from the state media has however made people reliant on international and social media, and speculation is rife. A great variety of sentiments are being expressed, from relief and excitement that Mugabe's long reign may be finally over, to a profound nervousness that what follows could be even worse.

Does the military action spell the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37 years in power?

Mugabe appears to have lost power, but not his position as president, at least in the first two days after the military move. At 01:26 in the early hours of Wednesday 15 November, an army spokesman delivered a written statement on national television and radio claiming the military had taken action, “targeting criminals around [President Mugabe] who are committing crimes and are causing social and economic suffering in the country to bring them to justice”. The statement said the president and his family were safe and that “as soon as we have accomplished our mission, we expect the country to return to normalcy”.

South African President Jacob Zuma confirmed Mugabe is “confined to his home”, as is apparently his wife, Grace. But Mugabe’s personal position remains unclear on many fronts.

Does the military’s action constitute a coup d’état?

This is a very peculiar kind of coup. Effectively there has been a military takeover, but the army has not declared martial law, the suspension of the constitution, or the deposition of the country’s head of state. The military and those such as War Veterans who supported a robust pushback following Vice President Mnangagwa’s dismissal have been at pains to argue that they are not pushing for a coup. Outside powers are also at pains not to use the word “coup” in relation to current events.

Yet General Chiwenga’s statement on 13 November had the hallmarks of threatening to seize power. He said that unless Mugabe took appropriate steps there would be a military intervention, albeit to address an apparent security threat perceived in both the ruling party and the country at large. The situation, he argued, warranted action and was in line with the military’s previous interventions in internal ZANU-PF disputes, enacted to ensure the ruling party and its revolutionary objectives were not hijacked. It would appear that Mugabe was either unable or refused to take the steps being demanded, setting in motion Chiwenga’s promised action.

The military’s televised broadcast maintained that “we wish to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government. What the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country which if not addressed may result in violent conflict”. The statement urged important arms of government and social constituencies to remain focused and calm.

There may well be sympathy for the military’s intervention from several domestic and regional quarters, but it sets dangerous anti-democratic precedent with major implications for Zimbabwe and beyond.

There may well be sympathy for the military’s intervention from several domestic and regional quarters, but it sets dangerous anti-democratic precedent with major implications for Zimbabwe and beyond. How much longer can this overt military intervention avoid being labelled a coup d’état? While the army’s intentions may be couched in constitutional language, the democratic credentials of those pursuing this course of action are also in doubt. Just as importantly, will the military, in conjunction with ZANU-PF and the government, be able to cobble together a plausible veneer of legality around this intervention? Will the opposition and civil society take a clear stance on this? Will President Mugabe, whose controversial election in 2013 was widely accepted, be willing and able to put his imprimatur on any new suggested plan of action?

What has been the regional reaction?

The African Union (AU) and Southern African Development Community (SADC) rightly condemn unconstitutional takeovers of power as a red line not to be crossed. At the time of going to press, neither the AU nor SADC have expressly condemned the Zimbabwe military’s intervention or described it as a coup. There have been growing frustrations with how Mugabe has been mishandling internal factional dynamics, the economy and the unresolved issues of his own succession, exacerbated by the destabilising antics of the first lady.

The SADC chairman, Jacob Zuma, despatched two special envoys to Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, his defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, and the new and little experienced state security minister, Advocate Bongani Bongo. From there, the envoys are expected to travel to Angola to brief President João Lourenço who is chairperson of SADC’s Organ for Politics, Defence and Security. Zuma confirmed he had been in touch with Mugabe and with the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, which are well-regarded in the region. Zuma called for “calm and restraint” and for the ZDF “to ensure peace and stability are not undermined”. He made no mention of a coup d’état.

Speaking on Tuesday, South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Gwede Mantashe made it clear that the ANC doesn’t want to get involved in the rift. “ZANU-PF must deal with the issue because Zimbabwe is not our colony. It’s not our province, it’s our neighbour. If things go wrong there, of course, we’ll be concerned because it’ll impact on us, but we have no authority over them, that’s the point we’re making”.

Where are Zimbabwe’s domestic politics heading? What kind of transitional government might be possible?

When Mugabe fired Vice President Mnangagwa on 6 November, it was thought that Grace Mugabe had prevailed in the eventual struggle to succeed her husband. But the army’s reaction appears to have ended the chances of her taking over.

The army has now detained senior members of Grace Mugabe’s G40 faction of party veterans, including Party Commissar Saviour Kasukuwere, Finance Minister Ignatius Chombo, and Patrick Zhuwao, Mugabe’s nephew and minister of public services, labour and social welfare. Some social media is reporting Higher Education Minister Jonathan Moyo has also been arrested; others claim he also sought refuge with Mugabe. Others reportedly taken in include the ZANU-PF youth league chairperson, Kudzai Chipanga; images of his beaten visage have been circulating on social media. Unconfirmed reports claim the commissioner of police, Augustine Chihuri has also been detained. It remains to be seen who else constitutes the alleged “criminals and counter-revolutionaries” referred to by the military and whether they will now be subjected to due process, criminal investigation and prosecution.

36 hours after the announcement on state media, there had still been no public statement from the government or from any key political players. A statement from opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is on his way back to Harare this evening, is keenly awaited.

The most likely person to benefit from recent events is Mnangagwa.

The most likely person to benefit from recent events is Mnangagwa. Some ZANU-PF party structures have already reversed their former support for Mnangagwa’s expulsion. He was in the past held out by many as the best hope within ZANU-PF for piloting a pragmatic economic recovery predicated on re-engagement with international creditors and a package of reform that would instil a measure of much needed confidence. He now has a chance to show that he can deliver on this promise.

If Mugabe steps down from office, Mnangagwa could be sworn in as interim leader. Tsvangirai has not indicated what line he will take, but he has made political deals before. It may be we are in for a staggered transitional process that features a staged public show of Mugabe "overseeing" the process, which would allow the new powers in the land to introduce credibly some kind of interim government. Some wish to bring forward parliamentary elections currently scheduled for mid-2018, but with guarantees that the political space will be opened up. Others are pushing for a longer transition, even up to two to three years, in the hope that this period can be used to level the political playing field and to build some foundation for economic recovery.

But even if Mnangagwa wins formal control of ZANU-PF at the scheduled ZANU-PF Extraordinary Congress in December, it is unclear whether he can cobble together a transitional unity government that can turn around the moribund economy and end the political crisis. Mnangagwa may explore options for an executive that incorporates opposition elements and those more recently estranged from ZANU-PF, such as Joice Mujuru. This would probably mean postponing the 2018 elections, which many believe would in any case be unable to provide a legitimising platform for reform and recovery in the current political context. Such a proposition would require broad based buy-in, not only from opposition elements, but civil society more broadly. Their endorsement and participation in charting a new national vision is essential, if this interregnum is to generate a credible set of options designed to enhance and rebuild Zimbabwe’s democratic credibility.