These are confusing times for Zimbabwean voters and political commentators.
On 12 January, the spokesperson for the country’s new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, told journalists that the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, had asked to postpone the general election. In a meeting between the two, which appears to have been inspired in part by Tsvangirai’s poor health, the opposition leader is said to have demanded that the polls – which are currently scheduled to take place between July and September 2018 – be deferred by three years to allow much needed reforms to be implemented.
The fact that this information was leaked by the government immediately raised suspicions that in reality the story was being used by the ruling party to “fly a kite” for a plan to push the elections back. The idea that a ZANU PF faction was testing the waters to see whether the government could get away a power grab were leant credibility when Tsvangirai’s advisors subsequently rejected the president’s account, claiming that “the matter was never a subject for discussion”.
This interpretation subsequently gained further ground when former Cabinet Minister and Mnangagwa rival Jonathan Moyo used an interview with Zeinab Bedawi on BBC’s Hard Talk to say what many were thinking, alleging that it was in fact the president who had tried to persuade Tsvangirai to agree to an election delay because he is “afraid of losing”.
However, Zimbabwe has entered new and less predictable political times, and rumours don’t last long these days.
Just six days later, the headline on the front page of the Herald, a recognized government mouthpiece, screamed “Elections in five months: President”. According to the story, elections were not to be postponed but rather brought forward. Although July 23 is the earliest date that elections can be held without a change of the law, the president told Zimbabweans that the country was “going for elections in four to five months’ time”.
This was followed up by a wide-ranging interview with the Financial Times in which Mnangagwa committed himself not only to holding elections quickly, but to holding good quality ones. According to the president, “We want fair free credible elections … In the past those who had pronounced themselves against us; who pre-determined that our elections would not be free and fair, were not allowed to come in. But now with this new dispensation I don’t feel threatened by anything.”
Promoting democracy to secure development
In a surprise to many, the president did not leave things there. Instead, in a move designed to build bridges with the West ahead of the World Economic Forum at Davos on 23-26 January, Mnangagwa committed himself to a wide-ranging process of democratization.
This, he pledged, would include holding credible elections and allowing international observers from the Commonwealth and the United Nations to oversee the process – something that the government did not allow last time round.
The president also said that he was willing to enter into talks with the United Kingdom about Zimbabwe re-joining the Commonwealth. This would be something of a fillip for the British government, signalling that Zimbabwe had genuinely returned from the cold — and that Mnangagwa’s administration had recognized that the demonization of the UK that occurred under Robert Mugabe had not been in either country’s interests.
It would also have important implications for politics in Zimbabwe going forwards. In 2013, Robert Mugabe withdrew his country from the Commonwealth after the organization decided to maintain Zimbabwe’s suspension indifferently.
That suspension resulted, in part, from a flawed election in 2002, when Mugabe retained power in controversial circumstances. Allegations of violence and intimidation during the presidential election campaign led the UK, Australia and New Zealand to express deep concern, and a critical report from the Commonwealth Observer Group proved to be the final nail in the coffin.
Thus, while Mnangagwa can expect a soft landing from the Commonwealth as a new leader preaching reform, he would also be taking a risk. Inviting international scrutiny and welcoming international observers could easily backfire, especially if the president turns out to be less popular than he hopes.
Which all raises one big question: does he really mean it?
Why democracy now?
We know that Mnangagwa is not a democrat by instinct.
Although he has sought to disassociate himself from the Gukurahundi massacres of the early 1980s, few believe his protestations of innocence. The deaths of around 20,000 mainly ethnic Ndebeles in Matabeleland occurred while he held prominent roles within the security forces, and his public statements around the time were telling.
According to The Chronicle newspaper, at a rally in Victoria Falls in 1983, Mnangagwa likened the dissidents to cockroaches and bugs – anticipating the language of the Rwandan genocide – and “said the bandit menace had reached such epidemic proportion that the government had to bring ‘DDT’ [pesticide] to get rid of the bandits.”
More recently, it is important that the new president did not come to power through the ballot box but through a very carefully orchestrated palace coup. The lesson that this episode taught him was straightforward: the one thing that can save you when your influence is on the wane and people you know are turning their backs on you is military support.
In other words, the new president is not someone who is ever going to believe the naïve cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Given this, how are we to interpret his newfound commitment to democratic norms and values? It is possible that Mnangagwa has had a “road to Damascus” moment and that the leopard really has changed his spots. But a more likely answer is that he is using the promise of democracy to pursue other ends.
The president knows that Zimbabweans will judge him on the state of the economy, which is looking like a tough ask. Despite all of the talk of a more clean and efficient government, and of an open door for foreign investors, many are waiting to see if the government will come through on its promises before parting with their money.
This represents a significant challenge for Mnangagwa, because while some of his own speeches have stoked popular expectations of an instant recovery, the reality is that the economy has been tanking for so long that it will take a while to turn it around.
One thing that could help to change this picture is debt relief. According to the International Monetary Fund, Zimbabwe will owe external lenders more than US $10 billion. Because this represents over half the country’s annual GDP, the government’s capacity to invest in public service and economic recovery will be severely hampered unless this debt can be cancelled or heavily rescheduled.
And while that is said to be a purely economic decision by key players such as the IMF and the World Bank, in reality it us much easier to justify saving the economic bacon of governments that take and hold power legitimately.
But if Zimbabwe’s new leader is mainly talking up democratic reforms to unlock economic assistance, what does that mean for the next election – might we actually see a “good enough” contest? Or is there a way that the president can have his cake and eat it?
What does a quick election mean?
There are some presidents in the world who do not really understand the nuts and bolts of how an election works – who make mistakes by failing to grasp key procedures and processes, and agree to what the think are small changes, only later to find that they have large consequences.
Emmerson Mnangagwa is not one of these presidents.
Having played a central role in the ZANU-PF election machine for many years, he has an intimate knowledge of how to control the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission, the mechanisms that the party uses to mobilise the vote, and is well aware of the fact that the government’s hegemony relies on a system of intimidation to keep opposition supporters away from the polls.
If he is floating the idea of an early election it suggests that he thinks doing so will be to his advantage. Why might that be the case?
An early election could help Mnangagwa in three ways.
First, going to the polls quickly gives voters less time to be disappointed if the promised economic resurgence does not materialise. The longer the president leaves it, the more he will need to show some green shoots of recovery to back up his claim to be the answer to the country’s financial difficulties.
Second, with Morgan Tsvangirai in poor health and the opposition divided over the question of whether or not he should be replaced by a younger leader, there may be no better time for the president to test his popularity. Whether or not Tsvangirai asked Mnangagwa to postpone the election, it is clear that the Movement for Democratic Change is not in great shape to contest one today.
Finally, the new president is well aware that clever autocrats rig elections well in advance – through the electoral roll, the channelling of patronage, and the manipulation of traditional leaders – and that to detect and expose these abuses the international monitors need to have long-term observers on the ground months ahead of any contest. If a snap election is called, it will be impossible for international monitors to deploy in time – even if the president keeps his promise to invite them – because they would effectively need to be in place already.
A quick election might therefore be just what ZANU PF needs. By taking advantage of Mnangagwa’s honeymoon, the challenges facing the opposition, and the massive head-start that the ruling party enjoys after decades of political manipulation, the government can retain power without needing to do anything on polling day that will create troublesome media headlines.
And by inviting international election observers who will only be able to deploy close to an election day, missing the preparations, the president will be able to sustain the image of being a democratic reformer without actually having to hold a democratic election …