Zimbabwe heads for yet another disputed election

Since the last polls, the government has weaponised the law and COVID-19 regulations against active citizenship and political participation.

Zimbabwe is on course for another contested election. Current conditions don’t conform with the Southern African Development Community’s election guidelines, nor do they provide an even electoral playing field.

The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has perfected the use of non-violent coercion to intimidate people into acquiescence. Over the past five years, the democratic space has narrowed as the law has been weaponised, opposition members and activists prosecuted, and COVID-19 regulations used to shut down civic and political activism.

The harmonised elections slated for 23 August will see potentially 12 candidates vie for the presidency, 637 compete for 210 parliamentary seats, and 4 800 nominees contest the 1 878 local government seats. However, it’s still largely a two-horse race between President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Nelson Chamisa and their respective political parties.

ZANU-PF and the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), the main opposition, are the only parties to field parliamentary candidates for all 210 seats. ZANU-PF is the only party with a full slate for the local government polls.

The ruling party looks set to retain power given its advantages of incumbency and manipulation of state resources, unlimited access to public media, and the benefits of an enduring conflation of party and state. There is also the military factor, which unofficially guarantees election victory.

Current conditions don’t conform with the Southern African Development Community’s election guidelines

At the same time, the CCC seems in disarray, with confusion around its candidate selection and the ensuing nominations court process, and the lack of a clear political message.

Neither party’s election manifesto articulates a clear vision and policy direction for citizens to choose based on ideas proffered. Both seem to be appealing more to loyalties and identity politics than policies and ideas.

Recent research, such as the Afrobarometer survey and Fitch report, show ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa leading the polls. Afrobarometer recorded a decline in people indicating they would vote for the CCC, from 33% in 2022 to 27% in 2023. Fitch points to the advantages, including dividends from government agriculture schemes attributed to ZANU-PF’s generosity, as the main drivers of its potential victory. As with previous surveys, Afrobarometer found that 27% – a major potential swing vote – wouldn’t reveal their preferred party.

To its credit, ZANU-PF’s campaign message has been well communicated, with the slogan ‘Nyika inovakwa nevene vayo’ imbuing a sense of responsibility for the country’s development. This aims to counter the opposition narrative of calling for the West to help rebuild Zimbabwe’s economy. In reality, it is the government that has been negotiating with the West, and ZANU-PF takes no ownership of the political, social and economic mess it has presided over.

The CCC has yet to develop a coherent message that projects it as a viable alternative to ZANU-PF, beyond projecting the latter’s manifold failings.

ZANU-PF has perfected the use non-violent coercion to intimidate people into acquiescence

The odds are stacked against the opposition. The ruling party has been campaigning since Mnangagwa’s inauguration in August 2018. Many taxpayer-funded government programmes are presented as the proceeds of ZANU-PF’s largesse. And over the past five years, the state has paralysed active citizenship by exploiting and weaponising COVID-19 regulations to immobilise the opposition and civic activism more broadly, even after restrictions were lifted elsewhere.

Before the pandemic, between August 2018 and March 2020, doctors, teachers and civic activists protested against problems plaguing the country. Since then, there have been no significant protests or collective citizen voices on governance and livelihood issues, even as poverty rises.

Lawfare used during the Mnangagwa administration has produced a cowed citizenry. The arrests of leading civic and political activists and journalists demanding accountability and transparency have further dampened spirits. The recent passing of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act (‘Patriot Act’) seals the sustained use of unjust laws to intimidate citizens.

Weak attempts at drawing parallels with the 200-year-old United States Logan Act are misplaced. The new act is a blunt instrument for a system known to abuse the law to thwart dissent. The act’s constitutionality will be tested in court, and any attempt to employ it closely monitored. It will likely negatively affect the current African Development Bank-sponsored debt arrears dialogue.

The key electoral issues in Zimbabwe are unemployment, increasing poverty, economic malaise and the weakening of governance institutions. The ZANU-PF government prefers to capture state institutions than strengthen them and safeguard their independence – and this is likely to continue if ZANU-PF wins.

27% of survey respondents – a major potential swing vote – wouldn’t reveal their preferred party

The ruling party’s hold over the central bank makes it impossible for the monetary authority to function independently and according to macroeconomic fundamentals. This affects the economy and citizens’ daily lives, including through the exchange rate, currency crisis and quasi-fiscal activities that have bedevilled Zimbabwe for two decades.

Afrobarometer surveys show that citizens lack trust in key state institutions. The May study found that less than half of participants had any trust in the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. The integrity of the voters' roll compiled by the commission is under scrutiny, with serious anomalies that the body is yet to respond to. The independence of the judiciary has been questioned in several cases, raising concerns about political influence that tarnish the judiciary’s image.

To offset ZANU-PF’s advantages, the opposition needs to galvanise grassroots support and canvas for votes door to door. But with less than a month to go, building a connection with voters in every village, ward and constituency will be difficult – as will ensuring competent party agents at all 11 500 polling stations.

The opposition also needs a solid message that resonates with the day-to-day aspirations of citizens. The hackneyed message of change for change’s sake rings hollow after decades of use. Unpacking the envisaged change and giving it practical meaning for voters will be the real game changer.

In the current circumstances, the prospects of an election result being accepted by the major players seem remote. Chances of a second round of voting will increase if the former ZANU-PF political commissar, Saviour Kasukuwere, is allowed to participate. ZANU-PF is keen to prevent that, as the stakes would rise considerably in such a scenario, along with prospects for violence like in 2008.

And, as happened 15 years ago, even if the CCC is successful in the first round, it cannot guarantee that a legal transfer of power will follow. There is no neat conclusion for Zimbabwe in sight.

ISS Pretoria

Image: © Jekesai Njikizana / AFP

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