Category Archives: Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe – President Mnangagwa makes his electoral play for international legitimacy

On 30 May 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 5 June 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 while away his days 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.

Zimbabwe – President Mnangagwa blows cold and then hot on elections

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 …

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election