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Zimbabwe election: Any hope for democratic change?

Martina Schwikowski | Privilege Musvanhiri in Harare
August 23, 2023

Eleven candiadates are hoping to unseat President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Wednesday's election. Zimbabwe's electorate is skeptical of the opposition's ability to defeat his repressive regime.

Supporters of President Emmesron Mnangagwa during a campaign event in Harare
Emmerson Mnangagwa is seeking a second presidential term in a vote that could see the ruling ZANU-PF extend its 43-year hold on powerImage: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images

Electa Gumbi* is upset. Her cellphone is ringing — again. It's a call from Zimbabwe's ruling party encouraging her to vote incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa into a second term in the August 23 election. She is disturbed by the barrage of unsolicited calls and messages.

"Some of the information is coming very specific to my ward," Gumbi told DW. "Those who are sending messages had direct access to certain databases. That is worrisome because it is an infringement on my privacy. That exposes us to many issues around data protection."

Manipulating the electorate

Zimbabwe has a cyber and data protection law that prohibits the disclosure of private data by all institutions. But many people like Gumbi fear that their right to privacy has been violated by the ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). The party denies this, claiming that it only sent text messages to its members. The electoral authority also denies data misuse and manipulation.

"In its operations, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission is not influenced by government, individuals or any other organizations as sometimes alleged," commission leader Priscilla Chigumba told DW. "Section 235 of the constitution of Zimbabwe guarantees the commission's independence."

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa
Mnangagwa has been praised by supporters for his political cunning and criticized by others for a ruthless streakImage: Iranian Presidency/AA/picture alliance

The repressive ZANU-PF is determined to remain in power, having controlled the country's fate since Zimbabwe's independence from British colonial rule in 1980. Once a thriving economy called the "breadbasket of Africa," Zimbabwe deteriorated over the course of ex-president Robert Mugabe's permanent rule into hyperinflation and poverty that sparked mass emigration. This has resulted in a growing diaspora in neighboring South Africa.

Electoral integrity in question

Officially, Zimbabwe puts the number of its citizens living abroad at about 1 million. But, unofficially, the number is believed to be between 3 million and 5 million — or about one-third of its population. More than 6.6 million eligible voters are registered within Zimbabwe for Wednesday's vote.

A map of Zimbabwe and surrounding countries

But observers have said the likelihood that the country's parliamentary and presidential elections will be free and fair for those voters is slim. Zimbabweans living in South Africa are also skeptical. They expect it will be "business as usual" — that is, bringing none of the democratic change desired by voters.

Victress Mathuthu, who lives in South Africa, is one of them. She said she's disillusioned because Zimbabweans living abroad don't have the right to register to vote. "With all that said I don't think that this particular election will be free and fair," she told DW.

Human rights abuses

Ngqabutho Mabhena also lives and works in South Africa. He told DW that violence, the murdering of opposition party members and arresting their leaders cannot lead to free and fair elections anywhere. Indeed, organizations such as Amnesty International have criticized human rights violations and the suppression of free speech in Zimbabwe.

The 80-year-old Mnangagwa came to power in 2017 following a military coup that toppled Mugabe, who had been Zimbabwe's only leader since it gained independence.

Mnangagwa had served under dictator Mugabe as vice president and minister of state security, among other positions — which also meant that he was a key part of the power apparatus that ordered the torture, murders, and disappearances of opposition figures.

Mnangagwa has been called "the crocodile" by fans, who admire his political savviness  and "the lion" by his detractors, who condemn his ruthlessness.

Opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa at a campaign event
Many young Zimbabweans hoping for change support opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa Image: Zinyange Auntony/AFP via Getty Images

Young people hope for change

Mnangagwa's challenger, as in the 2018 election, is the charismatic lawyer and pastor Nelson Chamisa — operating under the banner of Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) since January 2022. It emerged from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which had at times been a serious competitor of the ZANU-PF.

The CCC is being described as the main opposition — with the best chances of challenging the ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa on Wednesday. 

Many young Zimbabweans have put their faith in Chamisa to overcome divisions, create jobs and usher in a better future. But the CCC has failed to establish its candidates in rural areas that are traditional ZANU-PF voter strongholds.

The election campaign has been defined by generational differences. While Chamisa is 45 years old, Mnangagwa is 80. The octogenarian's ZANU-PF also celebrates its 60th founding anniversary in August — an occasion that is being used to recall its origins as an anti-colonial liberation movement and denounce the opposition as Western puppets. By contrast, the CCC promises new beginnings.

An unpredictable climate

"Those who expect change will be disappointed, as ZANU-PF will still win the elections due to a weak opposition," political analyst Gideon Chitanga said.

Another analyst, Alexander Rusero, said incumbent Mnangagwa has the advantage of being able to sell state-financed projects as successes.

"Mnangagwa can point to a road, can point to a bridge, can point to a clinic. So far, the opposition cannot point at anything," he told DW. "The opposition in Zimbabwe is always in a fix. Their electoral rhetoric remains promises. The promises also remain rhetoric."

Opposition CCC's campaign posters outside a party rally in Gweru
The Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) is the only party harboring any real hope of unseating Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PFImage: Zinyange Auntony/AFP via Getty Images

The opposition regularly accuses Zimbabwe's government of electoral fraud, which Western nations have backed up by imposing sanctions on the country for the same reason. After Zimbabwe's 2018 election, the results of which Chamisa unsuccessfully challenged in court, the army shot dead six people during protests.

Chamisa himself was beaten by state security agents in 2007 and suffered a fractured skull. In 2021, he was shot in his car after a political rally.

So far, there has been relatively little violence during this campaign, as compared to previous elections when the opposition was stronger, analyst Chitanga said. But experience has shown that if election results are close, the climate could shift at any time, he added.

*Name changed.

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This article was originally written in German.

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