What to Expect from Zimbabwe’s Tilted Polls
What to Expect from Zimbabwe’s Tilted Polls
Opposition party Citizens Coalition for Change supporters arrive at the magistrate court for a bail hearing after they were arrested for unlawful gathering with intent to incite public violence in Harare, Zimbabwe, January 16, 2023. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo
Q&A / Africa 12 minutes

What to Expect from Zimbabwe’s Tilted Polls

Zimbabwe will hold elections on 23 August. As with past votes, the playing field is skewed in favour of the ruling party ZANU-PF. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Nicolas Delaunay lays out the stakes and assesses the risks of violence.

What is happening?

On 23 August, Zimbabweans will vote in presidential, parliamentary and local council elections. As in the last presidential race, in 2018, 80-year-old President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s main competitor is opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, 45. But the atmosphere could not be more different. The 2018 elections unfolded amid cautious optimism about the country’s trajectory. It was the first vote since the dramatic November 2017 ouster of former leader and strongman Robert Mugabe by Mnangagwa, his erstwhile deputy, who had teamed up with the army’s top brass to topple his boss in what was branded a “military-assisted transition”. Many Zimbabweans hoped the 2018 polls would usher in a government that would undertake much-needed democratic and economic reforms – a reasonable expectation, in view of Mnangagwa’s promise to re-engage with external actors, especially the U.S., UK and European Union. They hoped that reforms, in turn, would bring relief from sanctions those actors had imposed on the country in the Mugabe era and an influx of foreign investment. Initial signs were encouraging. The period preceding the polls saw a modest democratic opening, leading a record number of new voters to register. Turnout was high on election day.

The hopes for change soon proved misplaced, however, as the ruling party turned back to its old playbook of authoritarian moves aimed at remaining in power at all cost. Western election observers highlighted a number of flaws in the vote, which served Mnangagwa’s electoral interest. The opposition, perceiving that Mnangagwa had won unfairly, cried foul. On 1 August 2018, barely two days after the polls took place, security forces used live ammunition to disperse opposition protesters in the capital Harare, killing six. The government then failed to adopt the recommendations from the commission set up to investigate the violence. More broadly, Mnangagwa’s ensuing administration did not live up to its promises to pursue political and economic reforms.

Five years down the line, popular expectations regarding electoral fairness are low. The government has enacted several pieces of legislation, notably an amendment bill commonly referred to as the Patriotic Bill, that have pushed them even lower. This measure criminalises all acts “wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe”, a phrase so broadly defined that, in effect, it bars criticism of the government. Human rights groups describe the law as a “brutal assault” on the country’s democracy.

Is the playing field uneven – and, if so, in what ways?

Despite assurances from Mnangagwa that the vote will be free and fair, a number of government actions have once again tilted the balance heavily in favour of the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). These include crackdowns on the opposition and arrests of its supporters; the delimitation of constituencies by the electoral commission in a manner that favours the ruling party; and measures limiting the opposition’s visibility in state media. With such steps, critics argue, ZANU-PF aims to guarantee itself electoral victory while avoiding overt intervention during the actual balloting, when scrutiny of various kinds will be greater.

Intimidation of the opposition has taken many forms. Many members of the umbrella opposition group Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) and their supporters have been arrested on questionable charges or otherwise subjected to repressive tactics such as harassment, threats and violence. The most prominent judicial case involves CCC parliamentarian Job Sikhala, who has been detained since June 2022 on charges of inciting violence, which the opposition and rights groups say are trumped up. Meanwhile, over the past year, authorities in Harare have banned nearly 100 opposition rallies. At the last minute, they cancelled a 9 July gathering intended to mark the official launch of CCC’s campaign.

Civil society organisations ... lament two legal developments they say are part of the government’s campaign to silence dissident voices.

Civil society organisations also lament two legal developments they say are part of the government’s campaign to silence dissident voices. One is the aforementioned Patriotic Bill, which President Mnangagwa signed into law on 14 July. The other dates to 1 February, when the Senate approved the Private Voluntary Organisations Amendment Bill, which would regulate the activities of civil society and other non-governmental organisations, groups the government regularly describes as puppets of the West in a bid to discredit them. The amendment, which has drawn criticism from UN Special Rapporteurs, introduces restrictions on foreign funding for civil society organisations and bars them from participating in politics. Unlike the Patriotic Bill, the Private Voluntary Organisation Bill has not yet come into force, as Mnangagwa has not signed it, but civil society organisations say it nonetheless has a chilling effect on their activities. It has already prompted many groups to eschew political activity so as to avoid official censure.

The electoral commission has also been the focus of controversy. Its geographical delimitation of electoral constituencies, undertaken ahead of the polls, has been widely criticised, notably for gerrymandering in favour of the ruling party and otherwise serving ZANU-PF interests. The opposition also regularly complains about the military’s influence on the body (some of whose staff are former army officers). The commission also still has commissioners and senior staff who endorsed the shambolic 2008 presidential runoff. Then, ZANU-PF and the military used coercion and violence to intimidate the opposition, with authorities carrying out thousands of assaults and causing the death of hundreds of activists. Opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai eventually boycotted the vote. He died of cancer ten years later, months before the 2018 election.

The judiciary has also been involved. On 12 July, Zimbabwe’s High Court decided to bar the exiled former ruling-party stalwart Saviour Kasukuwere from participating in the presidential race, on the grounds that he has been outside the country for more than eighteen months. The case raises tricky legal issues under the Electoral Act, but critics see it as part of a pattern of disenfranchising the opposition. They note that the decision, which followed a petition lodged by a ZANU-PF member who argued that a person must be registered as a voter and resident in Zimbabwe to run for president, seems like a convenient way to exclude a candidate who could have rallied at least a small part of Mnangagwa’s base.

The large Zimbabwean diaspora, among whom opposition support runs high, is not allowed to vote from abroad despite longstanding demands from civil society.

Meanwhile, the large Zimbabwean diaspora, among whom opposition support runs high, is not allowed to vote from abroad despite longstanding demands from civil society and the opposition for this group to be enfranchised. Media coverage of the election is also slanted in favour of the ruling party, since radio and television – the main sources of information for rural dwellers who represent ZANU-PF’s traditional base – are dominated by state-owned outlets.

Against this backdrop, authorities exude confidence that voters will back ZANU-PF at the polls. The Mnangagwa administration goes to great lengths to showcase its achievements, notably emphasising new infrastructure projects like roads, and maintains it is in the best position to take the country out of its economic and diplomatic isolation. But the country’s economy is in disarray, with Zimbabwe facing hyperinflation and a punishing cost-of-living crisis. ZANU-PF largely blames the state of the economy on Western sanctions placed upon it.

In the latest Afrobarometer polling, 35 per cent of respondents said they will vote for Mnangagwa and 27 per cent for Chamisa, with 27 per cent refusing to disclose their preferred candidate. Under Zimbabwean electoral law, for a candidate to win in the first round, he or she needs to get more than 50 per cent of the vote. If none of the contenders reaches that mark, a runoff will take place on 2 October.

Does the opposition have a chance?

The main contender facing Mnangagwa is the CCC’s Nelson Chamisa, a charismatic lawyer and pastor who succeeded the late Tsvangirai as leader of the opposition in early 2018. His campaign has pledged to fix Zimbabwe’s economy, distribute wealth more fairly, fight poverty and tackle corruption.

The CCC says Chamisa is in a strong position to win the presidency. The party maintains that the results of parliamentary by-elections in March 2022, in which it won eighteen of the 29 seats up for grabs, were a foretaste of what is to come in the forthcoming polls. Also, the 2018 election was tighter than expected, with Mnangagwa only narrowly avoiding a runoff with 50.8 per cent of the vote to Chamisa’s 44.3 per cent. More fundamentally, the CCC has been seeking to capitalise on the widespread discontent with ZANU-PF’s failure to deliver on its 2018 campaign promises.

But despite these hopes, the opposition appears weakened. The various measures taken by state institutions against its members have undermined the CCC’s capacity to mount a credible challenge. Moreover, the CCC leadership cannot escape all blame for the party’s declining stock. The party has led a disorganised campaign – intentionally, its members argue, as part of the “strategic ambiguity” it maintains to avoid infiltration and harassment by ZANU-PF. The process for selecting CCC candidates for parliamentary and council elections was far from transparent, for example, with the nominees’ names kept secret up to the last moment. The CCC said the secrecy was necessary to prevent ZANU-PF from persecuting the chosen candidates.

Resources are also a factor. The opposition is not as well-heeled as ZANU-PF, which has been accused by observers of using state funds for its campaigns. There are also doubts as to whether the opposition has the funds to deploy competent observers in all the country’s polling stations. It may have particular difficulty deploying observers in rural areas, which traditionally are ZANU-PF strongholds, and where they are more likely to face attempts at intimidation than in cities, from which the opposition draws most of its support.

Could the election turn violent?

Zimbabwe has a history of electoral violence, with notable examples in 2008 and 2018. About 59 per cent of Zimbabweans tell pollsters they fear falling victim to violence during the 2023 campaign.

At present, the risk of violence appears limited to local, low-level incidents. Election day is expected to be largely peaceful, as in 2018, although observers say security forces or ZANU-PF supporters will likely try to intimidate or harass opposition supporters in particular areas, either on election day or in the days afterward. That being said, the possibility of more widespread and lethal violence in the aftermath of polling cannot be discounted. If the vote is perceived as patently unfair, for example in case of a long delay before announcing the results, large-scale protests could erupt, which would then almost inevitably lead to a crackdown by security forces. If there is no winner in the first round, tensions could rise ahead of the runoff, as in 2008.

Zimbabwe’s legacy of repression could well deter the public from taking to the streets.

At the same time, Zimbabwe’s legacy of repression could well deter the public from taking to the streets. As a close observer put it, a common expression in Zimbabwe is that the government only needs to “shake the matchbox” to instil fear, given how many times it has “burnt down houses before”, a reference both to periods of unrest and violent crackdowns, as in 2008 or 2018, but also to the systematic harassment faced by dissenters in Zimbabwe. The extensive deployment of security forces around the country during the campaign likely reduces the chances of major protests even if people believe the vote is compromised.

Zimbabwe has invited in several foreign observer missions, including from the African Union (AU), the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the European Union and the U.S.-based Carter Center. The missions may deter open manipulation of balloting and vote counting at locales where observers are present. The observers should try to coordinate in order to share a common picture of the polls and avoid the mixed messages of the past, as in 2018, when AU and SADC observers essentially endorsed flawed elections and observers from outside the continent returned a more critical verdict.

How do elections fit into Zimbabwe’s efforts to re-engage with the West?

Following Mugabe’s ouster, Mnangagwa signalled that he wanted to stabilise Zimbabwe’s economy, improve Harare’s human rights record and re-engage with international partners. His administration aimed to secure removal of international (mostly U.S.) sanctions, rejoin the Commonwealth and regain access to loans from international financial institutions.

Little progress has been achieved toward these goals, primarily due to the government’s patchy rights record. The government’s clampdown on dissent following the 2018 elections left a poor impression abroad. In 2019, security forces again quashed protests as fuel prices rose. Now the run-up to the 2023 election has seen yet another effort to muzzle critics. On the economic front, the flagship 2018 Transitional Stabilisation Program (a series of policies aimed at boosting economic growth) and the reintroduction of a Zimbabwean currency have failed to improve the country’s fortunes. Citizens are enduring ever greater hardship amid a rising cost of living. Meanwhile, several senior officials have been named in corruption scandals. Mnangagwa himself was accused of involvement in the illegal gold trade in a widely watched, multi-part Al Jazeera investigation.

Against this backdrop, the re-engagement drive has barely inched forward. Western diplomats hint at fatigue, with a former envoy lamenting that “we somehow still haven’t figured out how to deal with Zimbabwe”. The European Union reiterated in 2022 that it would maintain its last remaining sanctions, those on the military sector, because “the situation in terms of respect for human rights has not improved”. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, maintains that sanctions – especially those imposed by the U.S., which sanction Zimbabwean individuals and entities, or aim at preventing Zimbabwe’s access to international financial institutions – have unfairly hurt its economy. It calls for setting precise benchmarks for improvements that could lead the West to lift sanctions and support debt relief.

Zimbabwe is keenest on discussing the debt, while the West insists that governance and compensation also feature high on the agenda.

In a bid to revitalise its drive to re-engage with Western partners, Harare has recently taken steps toward ending its political and economic isolation. With a view to obtaining loans from international financial institutions and seeing other sanctions lifted, the government in December 2022 established a dialogue platform involving officials, external notables and outside partners. Harare appointed former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano as the dialogue facilitator, while the African Development Bank is also participating in the process. The platform is designed to facilitate dialogue about governance reforms, Zimbabwe’s $8.3 billion debt and arrears, and compensation for land seized from white farmers in the early 2000s. Western partners welcome the opportunity to talk about all these issues, and they would like to make progress. But Zimbabwe is keenest on discussing the debt, while the West insists that governance and compensation also feature high on the agenda. In another part of its re-engagement drive, Zimbabwe has made efforts to offer a certain degree of transparency, notably by publishing public debt statistics. But at the same time, developments like the amendment of the Patriotic Bill – and the generally fraught pre-election environment – are hampering re-engagement, as is Zimbabwe’s closeness with Russia at a time of intense geopolitical competition.

The Southern African region has an interest in ensuring that Zimbabwe’s economy gets back on track and that Harare creates a conducive environment for citizens to exercise their political rights freely, in line with the principles of the SADC, of which Zimbabwe is a leading member. The economic crisis in Zimbabwe directly affects its neighbours due to the large numbers of Zimbabwean migrants seeking work elsewhere, notably in Botswana and South Africa (where migration is increasingly a hot-button issue, with demands for forcible return of migrants). At present, however, neither country is doing much to push for change. Former Botswanan President Ian Khama was an outspoken critic of the Zimbabwean government, but his successor has not taken the same stance. After Mugabe’s ouster, expectations were high that South Africa would press Zimbabwe to open up political space and reform its economy, but it has not done so. Zimbabwe’s neighbours, given their historical ties with Harare, should urge the Mnangagwa administration to enact important reforms and to ensure that the election is free, fair and peaceful.

The 2023 elections certainly do not offer the same hope of a reset that the 2018 elections did. But Zimbabwean authorities should not underestimate the importance of ensuring that the election is conducted cleanly, without violence marring either the balloting or the aftermath. It is in Harare’s self-interest to allow a clean vote, not least because the government is eager to deepen its re-engagement with the outside world, which will be watching. Zimbabwean authorities should also take special care to protect the right of peaceful assembly, urging the police to avoid heavy-handed tactics in managing any protests. A violent vote is likely to estrange Zimbabwe further from the West. Protecting the rights and freedoms of citizens during the election would signal that Harare is finally taking modest steps on the road of reform.

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