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Zimbabwe: Is a cleaner-than-clean election possible?

Zimbabwe: Is a cleaner-than-clean election possible?
  • PublishedMay 9, 2023

Zimbabweans will participate in what could well be the country’s most significant election in July or August. The fate of the country’s 16m population could hinge on how the election is conducted and perceived. Anver Versi looks at the main contestants.

After the general election in Nigeria in February, the next most significant election in Anglophone Africa will be in Zimbabwe in July or August.

There is huge interest in the conduct and outcome of this election, particularly from Zimbabwe’s neighbours, especially South Africa, as well as the broader Southern, Eastern and Central Africa.

Zimbabwe has always occupied a special emotional, as well as ethical space in the African collective psyche, from the brutal wars of liberation against Ian Smith’s racist regime, to a glorious decade following independence in 1980, to Robert Mugabe locking horns with the British government over land reforms, to the virtual banishment of the country from all forms of official financial channels and its subsequent economic collapse, to the fall of Mugabe and the rise of Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Discussions over Zimbabwe, internally as well as externally, have always been highly emotive and deeply polarised. This is set to not only continue but reach a crescendo as the election date (yet to be announced at time of writing) draws near. Whatever happens in Zimbabwe has a direct and indirect effect on the Southern African region as well as on the image of Africa as a whole.

The 80-year-old leader of Zanu-PF (which has ruled Zimbabwe uninterrupted since 1980), Mnangagwa – ‘The Crocodile’ (his liberation war name) – will once again face off with the 45-year-old Nelson Chamisa, now the leader of a relatively new party, the Citizens Coalition of Change (CCC).

The CCC will be contesting its first general election but it has much older antecedents. It broke off in 2022 from the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC-A), itself a splinter of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), the party founded by the late Morgan Tsvangirai in 1999.

The MDC went toe-to-toe with Zanu-PF, forming a coalition government in 2009 (with Tsvangirai as Prime Minister), but Tsvangirai lost to Mugabe in 2008 and 2013, having withdrawn from the second-round run-off in 2008. He died from cancer in 2018.

With the 2018 polls imminent, the MDC was under intense pressure to elect a new leader and without clear guidance from the late Tsvangirai on his successor, the internal power struggle was settled by naming Nelson Chamisa the leader and the party’s Presidential candidate. The fractures were papered over but not repaired, as subsequent events would prove.

Following the 2017 coup that ousted Mugabe and saw Mnangagwa installed as national leader, the 2018 election acquired a potent symbolism and there was considerable tension leading up to the polls. Chamisa contested the Presidential election as leader of the MDC Alliance.

Mnangagwa won 50.3% to Chamisa’s 44.3%. Zanu-PF won six of the country’s 10 provinces while four went to MDC-A. This was the closest that any opposition party had come to breaking the ruling party’s hold on power.

Very high stakes

Both sides square up again in July or August and the stakes are high. The opposition has been accusing the government of using the police to harass its members and stopping its rallies. The police say that campaigners have to apply for licences a fortnight before a rally and that many of the rallies that were stopped were illegal gatherings.

A poll by a London-based PR organisation, the SABI Strategy Group, and commissioned by the South African Brenthurst Foundation, which was established by the Oppenheimer family, has gone viral on the internet and social media. The poll, apparently conducted over phone lines with 1,000 Zimbabweans who had said they would definitely vote, claims that as things stand, 53% would vote for Chamisa while 40% would vote for Mnangagwa, and similar numbers would vote for the respective parties.

But as examples from the US and other countries show, political forecasting based on such polls can be a hazardous occupation. In addition, the voting pattern in all previous elections showed strong support for the opposition in urban areas but very solid support for Zanu-PF in the rural areas. For any poll to accurately reflect how people will actually vote, it would have to reach a much larger and more regionally diversified electorate.

The problem with such polls is that the projections are often seen as ‘inviolable’ and this can lead to post-election claims of rigging based on nothing more than the ‘evidence’ of a poll.

President Mnangagwa has pledged that the general election will be free and fair. The government is well aware that a great deal rides on how the elections are conducted and perceived.

Mountain of economic woes

Winning the contest is one thing – what to do after that is quite another. The victors will inherit a mountain of economic woes that have been decades in the making.

There will be no quick fixes or magic bullets. For starters, whoever is in government will need to re-engage with the multilateral organisations and donors to sort out its massive debt problem and work out a reconnection to the mainstream sources of financing.

The crucial battleground will be over who the voters are convinced will be able to deliver an economic upturn and stimulate the jobs the country’s youth is so desperate for. CCC claims the government is riddled with corruption and is not fit for purpose; the nation needs a fresh start under a new team.

Zanu-PF counters by saying that it has battled through incredible odds since it was cast into the economic wilderness and that it has now established a solid foundation on which the economy can be rebuilt. It needs another mandate to complete the job.

“In Zimbabwe, we underwent a very aggressive fiscal consolidation programme and since 2019, the country has not run a deficit of more than 3%,” said Finance Minister Professor Mthuli Ncube in an interview with African Banker magazine.

He said agriculture had turned around and “last year we had the best wheat winter crop in 50 years”. In addition the country produced 2.7m tonnes of maize in 2022, achieving the target of an $8bn agricultural sector by 2023.

The performance of the mining sector is what gives Ncube the most cause for optimism. Zimbabwe has substantial reserves of diamonds, gold, the platinum group of metals and holds one of the continent’s biggest reserves of lithium – an essential component in the manufacture of batteries. With the world inexorably moving towards green energy, including electric car use, the demand for lithium has been soaring.

The government says that when most of the new and old mines are in full operation later this year, “We should be able to clock $12bn per year. This growth from about $3bn [when it came into office in 2018] to $12bn demonstrates the fact that we have a really good mining sector, and that foreign companies are feeling safe to invest in Zimbabwe.”

In December, the government banned the export of raw lithium. “Beneficiating lithium is a good thing,” Prof. Ncube told African Banker. “We are saying that, you cannot export raw unprocessed lithium but if you build a concentrator, it can be exported as a lithium concentrate. Better still, if you build a lithium battery manufacturing plant, hallelujah!”

He said that within weeks, they had received offers from companies willing to set up concentrators and manufacturing plants.

But the economy is not out of the woods. The legal tender (composed of a combination of US and newly introduced Zim dollars plus the South African rand, the Botswana pula and a gold-backed digital currency) remains volatile. Although inflation has been battened down from 285% last year to around 90%, it is still a heavy burden to bear for most households.

Prof. Ncube said that after hitting a growth rate of 8.5% in 2021, he expects growth to average 5% over the next five years. But the first order of business, he agrees, is to restructure Zimbabwe’s massive debts with the international financial institutions (IFIs). “We have started a process working with the creditors – the IFIs as well as the Paris Club partners,” he told African Banker. He expects agreements to conclude over the next 18 months.

Interestingly, President Mnangagwa accepted an invitation to attend the UK’s King Charles III coronation in May – the first time in over two decades that the ice was broken. Was this the opening of the door to Zimbabwe to resume its place in the family of nations?

But first, a closely contested election must be fought and seen to be fought cleanly and fairly. At stake is the future of Zimbabwe.

Written By
Anver Versi

Award-winning journalist Anver Versi is the editor of New African magazine. He was born in Kenya and is currently based in London, UK.

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