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Zimbabwe election: Why the youth vote matters

August 22, 2023

Young people in Zimbabwe, including many first-time voters, could determine the election winner. But is Jamaican dancehall music enough to win them over?

A Citizens for Coalition Change (CCC) supporter poses for a photograph during the opposition party's election campaign rally.
The youth will play a decisive role in Zimbabwe's electionImage: KB MPOFU/REUTERS

Jamaican dancehall blares out of speakers across Zimbabwe as the longtime ruling ZANU-PF party and the leading opposition party, the new Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), try to attract the most crucial voters in this year's presidential election — the youth.

The music has not only become the unofficial soundtrack of Zimbabwe's presidential election but is also very much loved by the youngest voters, who could change the outcome of the election just by casting their ballots on Wednesday.

One of them is Anyway Manhenga. "I would like to vote for someone who ensures that there is medication in hospitals, road rehabilitation and someone who stabilizes prices of commodities," the 34-year-old told DW.

In addition to playing local versions of Jamaican dancehall music and fielding young candidates in contests for parliament and councils, parties have also been actively using social media. There, they've been posting videos featuring pop stars or inviting famous sports personalities like former world boxing champion Floyd Mayweather who attended a ZANU PF political campaign event.

"This year's election will most likely be decided by youths, given the majority of voters are between 26 and 35," Babra Ontibile Bhebe, executive director of the Election Resource Center, told DW. 

Zimbabwe candidates get set for presidential election

Youth unemployment in Zimbabwe

The leading presidential candidates, incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the CCC's candidate Nelson Chamisa, are battling to convince Zimbabwe's largest demography that their party is better than the other. Zimbabwe is dealing with significant challenges, such as youth unemployment, limited access to education, human rights violations, mental health issues and rising living costs.

Harrington Chawonza, another young Zimbabwean, said he also believes that a change in leadership is the only way forward. "I am going to vote for a young person who can well represent us," Chawonza told DW, adding that he expects the next president to change his life by creating jobs. "At the moment, I am just hustling."

About 6.5 million out of an estimated 15.5 million people have registered to vote in Zimbabwe's ninth election since the country gained independence from Great Britain in 1980. One-sixth of the registered voters are first-time voters. And therefore, their votes are more than crucial. They can now pick their president from one of the 11 candidates.

A supporter of Zimbabwe's ruling party ZANU PF holds up an election campaign poster during a rally addressed by party president Emmerson Mnangagwa
Zimbabwe's ruling party ZANU PF claims it has the support of the youthImage: Jekesai Njikizana/AFP via Getty Images

President Emmerson Mnangagwa vs. Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa

While many young Zimbabweans put their faith in opposition leader Nelson Chamisa to usher in a better future, the CCC has struggled to establish its candidates in rural areas that are traditional ZANU PF strongholds. Farai Muroiwa Marapira, director of information and publicity at ZANU PF, said he is optimistic the ruling party will win the youth vote.

"The youth has been a major part of the ZANU PF campaigns from participating in our primary elections," Marapira told DW. "We have a lot of youth vying to represent ZANU PF and I believe a lot of youths were actually representing the party at ward and parliamentary elections," Marapira said, stressing that their political rallies had seen massive youth attendance. 

Generational differences have defined the election campaign. 80-year-old President Mnangagwa is the older of the two main candidates. In addition, ZANU PF also celebrates its 60th founding anniversary in August. The party, long associated with the late President Robert Mugabe, has used the occasion to recall its origins as an anti-colonial liberation movement and denounce the opposition as Western puppets.

According to Farai Muroiwa Marapira, the party attracts a lot of interest from the youth.

"More than 50% of attendance at the end of the rally was mostly the youth," Marapira noted, adding that they are quite happy and hope to continue attracting more youth because the policies of the president [Mnagangwa] that are youth and gender-centered. "The results are there for all to see. The youths are very much a part of ZANU PF, which is a progressive party."

Young people clad in yellow hold posters supporting Chamisa
Many young Zimbabweans support opposition candidate ChamisaImage: Privilege Musvanhiri/DW

CCC opposition party seeks to woo the youth

Also hoping to clinch the youth vote is the CCC, which promises new beginnings. Forty-five-year-old Chamisa, a charismatic lawyer and pastor, is much more approachable for many young Zimbabweans.

"We are very much impressed by the participation of younger people in our party and our country's politics," 30-year-old Gift Ostallos Siziba, the CCC's spokesperson, told DW. "Those between the ages of 18 and 35 are the major victims of the political crisis in our country, which has moved into an economic crisis." Siziba described the life young people in Zimbabwe as a life with "empty stomachs and a jobless existence."

According to official figures, Zimbabwe's youths constitute about 68% of the country's population and about 75% of the voters. In addition, about 70% of Zimbabwe's youths are unemployed. Siziba told DW that "the solution in our country is to vote for the 'president' [Chamisa]."

A group of men catch a ride on the back of public transport vehicle in Harare, Zimbabwe
The majority of Zimbabwe's youth is unemployed and struggling to make ends meetImage: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo/picture alliance

Youth in Zimbabwean politics

According to Siziba, CCC encourages youth to participate in politics actively.

"Look at the positions of parliament members in Harare, Bulawayo and different parts of the province Manicaland. You see the representation of women and young people," Siziba said. "Those were central philosophical state points for the CCC, so we are doing all so that we become a home for the younger people, a home for the oppressed who are in the center of the national democratic project we are executing."

According to Bhebe, the youth rarely has a chance to participate in politics. "The number of youth contesting in the 2023 elections is very low largely because they were sidelined and in some instances elbowed out by senior political party members," the human rights and governance expert said.

"The presidential age limit is clearly stated in the constitution and for that to be changed to accommodate youths with a desire to run for the presidency at a much younger age, then a law reform would be essential. But as long as the youth are sidelined in policy making and governance, their voices will continue to be muzzled," she explained.

However, some of the young voters have complained that they've received unsolicited calls and messages encouraging them to vote for the ruling party. Many don't believe that the election will be free and fair, as many votes in the past were marred by systematic violence and voter intimidation.

Edited by: Chrispin Mwakideu

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.