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Polls show a tight race between Mnangagwa, Chamisa

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Picture: Philimon Bulawayo/REUTERS/Taken August 9, 2023 Supporters of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa cheer during a rally, at Robert Gabriel Mugabe Square in Harare. The general elections are scheduled to be held on August 23.

By Sizo Nkala

The election season is in full swing in Zimbabwe. This is the second election in the post-Robert Mugabe era. Politicians are criss-crossing the length and breadth of Zimbabwe canvassing for votes in mass rallies and door-to-door campaigns. Banners with outsized headshots of politicians (mostly Zanu-PF) have been erected along the country’s busiest highways. Posters are plastered on every second wall in the public space.

Consumers of state-controlled television and radio stations are treated to a heavy diet of Zanu-PF jingles praising the sitting president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, which are played ad-nauseam. Although there are numerous parties contesting for office at the presidential, parliamentary and local government levels, the elections will be effectively a two-horse race between the ruling party Zanu-PF and the main opposition the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) led by Nelson Chamisa.

Various polls conducted on the elections thus far have shown that it is going to be a tight contest between Chamisa and Mnangagwa. The two parties’ candidates have attracted the largest crowds at their rallies. The elections come amid an economic downturn with the country experiencing high levels of inflation, which hit over 100 percent in July. This has plunged masses of Zimbabweans into poverty as the prices of commodities continue to skyrocket while their incomes either stagnate or erode. As such, the economy is a central issue in this election.

Zanu-PF has blamed sabotage and sanctions, meant to effect regime change, for the country’s economic troubles while the opposition cites Zanu-PF incompetency and corruption as the cause of the economic malaise. The first paragraph of the CCC’s election manifesto reads “over the last 43 years, as a result of bad governance and drought of leadership the country went through vicious cycles of economic meltdown characterised by exchange rate volatility, hyperinflation, collapse of national currency and loss of savings and pensions”.

The ruling party has not released an official manifesto bizarrely claiming that the work it has done in the past five years will serve as its manifesto. In his rallies, Mnangagwa is always in possession of a ready-made list of infrastructural projects that his government has embarked on to improve people’s lives. Moreover, as usual, Zanu-PF has resorted to the liberation struggle rhetoric flaunting its liberation credentials while dismissing the opposition as sell-outs who will bring back colonialism if elected into office. It is such rhetoric that casts opposition supporters as enemies of the state that perpetrates and justifies violence against them.

On the other hand, Chamisa has centred his campaign on God with his signature slogan – God Is In It. Implicit in this slogan is the characterisation of this election as pitting the godly against the ungodly; the good against the evil. Thus, the rhetoric employed by the main parties has created a toxic political environment, which has raised the levels of intolerance.

The legitimacy of the elections is also crucial. Mnangagwa came into power in 2017 emphasising the need to re-engage the West whose relations with Zimbabwe had atrophied under the Mugabe administration. Mnangagwa’s stance was motivated by the need to attract Western investors who had deserted Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s rule. The West has explicitly made the resuscitation of its relations with Zimbabwe conditional on free and fair elections. To this end, for the first time since 2000, the US and the EU have been allowed to send election observers to Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections.

However, the electoral environment is far from perfect as numerous issues have emerged which may undermine the legitimacy of the elections. First has been the hostile and differential treatment of the main opposition CCC by the Zimbabwe Republic Police which is responsible for ensuring a secure environment during the campaign period. Several of the CCC’s rallies were banned by the police without any satisfactory explanation while Zanu-PF has campaigned unimpeded.

Second, the judiciary has made decisions that seem to favour the ruling party while stifling the opposition. On July 20, High Court Judge Bongani Ndlovu, who turned out to be Minister of Environment, Climate Change, Tourism and Hospitality Industry Mangaliso Ndlovu’s brother, issued a judgment barring 17 opposition parliamentary candidates in Bulawayo from competing in the elections because they supposedly submitted their nomination papers to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) after the stipulated time. Had this judgment stood, it would have given Zanu-PF 12 parliamentary seats even before the casting of the first vote. Although the judgment was nullified by the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe when it was appealed, it showed how Zanu-PF can use the judiciary to stifle the opposition.

Third, there has been a total blackout of the opposition in the state media, which is decidedly biased towards Zanu-PF. The state media broadcasts Zanu-PF rallies live on television and radio, a privilege that has been exclusively reserved for the ruling party. Zanu-PF praise songs and campaign adverts are played ad nauseam on the state TV and radio while none of the opposition material is played. The ZEC’s handling of the election process, especially concerning the voters roll, the delimitation of constituencies and the design and printing of the ballot papers has left a lot to be desired and may compromise the outcome of the elections. These and other issues will lead to disputed polls and plunge Zimbabwe into renewed political uncertainty which has hampered economic recovery efforts.

Political uncertainty in Zimbabwe would present a fresh headache for the regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, because of the possible political instability that may ensue. As things stand, this election will be yet another false start on democracy in Zimbabwe.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies