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Zimbabwean election under scrutiny for irregularities

Cai Nebe
August 28, 2023

The re-election of President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe is under intense scrutiny. Allegations of voter intimidation, biased media coverage, and other irregularities have cast doubt on the integrity of the election.

Poster shows Zimbabwe leader Emmerson Mnangagwa
The ZImbabwean election took place against a backdrop of considerable youth unemployment, inflation and economic stagnationImage: Siphiwe Sibeko/REUTERS

Emmerson Mnangagwa was reelected president of Zimbabwe with 52.6% of the vote, avoiding a runoff with rival Nelson Chamisa of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC).

"I wanted to give Mnangagwa another chance," said voter Tinashe Makamure.

"We will always vote for Mnangagwa because he's the only one who can do progress in our country," an elated Mildred Sekai told DW.

The opposition immediately contested the results, with Chamisa calling the vote "fraught with unprecedented illegality." Speaking on Sunday, the CCC head described the results as "doctored" and "criminal."

Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa stand in front of a poster of himself
Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa contested the legality of Zimbabwe's electionImage: KB MPOFU/REUTERS

International election observers stressed that there had been problems with the poll held last Wednesday and Thursday. They cited an atmosphere of intimidation against Chamisa's supporters.

Over 40 local election monitors were arrested. Observers also listed censored media coverage and new, draconian laws like the Patriotic Bill, which authorizes punishment, including the death penalty, for anyone found guilty of "willfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe." The vague wording gives authorities ample scope to use the bill against political opponents.

"When you've got all that going on and can only win with 52% of the vote, that's pretty remarkable. This result shows us the depth of public anger against the government," Nic Cheeseman, an analyst and democracy scholar at the University of Birmingham, told DW.

Saviour Kasukuwere, a former Zimbabwean Cabinet Minister disqualified from running for the presidency by the High Court, told DW that Zimbabweans were "dismayed" and that the whole process was a "charade."

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Mnangagwa 'looks like a liability'

Mnangagwa, 80, described his election victory as a product of a "mature democracy" despite widespread criticism. But while the ruling ZANU-PF party secured power, winning 136, or 65%, of the 209 seats in Zimbabwe's Assembly, the results revealed that support for Mnangagwa himself was not as formidable.

"He proved less popular than his own party," said Cheeseman. "He polled worse than the MP candidate from ZANU-PF. So, you've got a party desperate for self-preservation. You've got a leader who looks like a liability."

The election took place against a backdrop of considerable youth unemployment, inflation and economic stagnation, partly due to Western sanctions against Zimbabwe over alleged human rights abuses.

Mnangagwa, however, is highly regarded in some Zimbabwean circles for his political savviness and ability to survive. Nicknamed "The Crocodile," he was a longtime ally of former dictator Robert Mugabe. Mnangagwa turned on Mugabe after he was dismissed as vice president in 2017. Shortly after, in an event most analysts described as a military coup, Mugabe was removed from power, and Mnangagwa won the ensuing presidential election. 

Voters line up to cast their ballot
Zimbabweans cast their votes last week amid multiple reports of voter intimidationImage: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Yet this year's election results might signal to the ruling party that "there are diminishing returns from the authoritarian strategy, and at some point, you've got to deliver something to the people. Otherwise, the process simply becomes unfeasible and implausible," Cheeseman said.

A bigger problem, say critics like Kasukuwere, is that the ZANU-PF government has no legitimacy.

"We can't continue with this charade where you want to keep the country in isolation because you want to win elections illegally," he told DW.

Regional body unimpressed

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern over reports of voter intimidation. Criticism from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was more substantial.

The regional organization said it was worried about the ban on opposition rallies, access issues with voter registration rolls, biased state media coverage and voter intimidation. This kind of severe criticism by SADC was absent in past elections, which were just as problematic, but the regional bloc will unlikely be able to force Mnangagwa into any compromise

"Sadly, it's probably overly optimistic to expect the region to intervene in a serious, systematic way. Both [President] Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa and [President] Hakainde Hichilema in Zambia have major domestic crises of their own," Cheeseman told DW.

Zimbabwe's President Mnangagwa wins second term

The failed bet on youth

The elections were initially seen as a test for ZANU-PF's hold on younger Zimbabweans, many of whom have flocked to the nation's urban centers in search of jobs and income.

At 45, opposition leader Nelson Chamisa is almost four decades younger than Mnangagwa. According to the Zimbabwe Election Commission, voter turnout was around 69%, suggesting that many younger Zimbabweans stayed away from the polls.

Zimbabwe's security forces have a history of cracking down on protesters around election time. This happened in 2018, when soldiers killed six people after opening fire on demonstrators and bystanders, and in 2008, which saw dozens of deaths and abductions.

"The sad reality is that the situation is so repressive that if the opposition called for mass protest, it would probably lead to a loss of life. That places the opposition in a really difficult position," said Cheeseman, adding that it was also "unfeasible" to get justice out of Zimbabwe's "increasingly politicized courts."

Edited by: Cristina Krippahl

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